Staff members at N.C. Wesleyan College are mobilizing a local effort to make homemade surgical masks to help local providers protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Face and N95 masks are personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect wearers from airborne particles and liquids contaminating the face. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, these loose-fitting surgical masks are becoming scarcer due to the increased demand.

The health care system has been overwhelmed this month, and PPE manufacturers are unable to keep up with demand.

However, there are a few people in the Rocky Mount area who are happy to lend their craft skills to create masks for health care workers facing shortages amid the pandemic. Volunteers are forming groups far and wide with sewing machines and fabric, working to make as many masks as possible for hospitals in need of supplies.

Brittany Bass, director of the RN to BSN Program at N.C. Wesleyan, is hopeful that local seamstresses will be up for the challenge to help the unexpected need. Bass suspects that once word of the mask-making endeavor gets out, people with sewing skills or extra piles of fabric will be inundating the college to help.

“The surgical mask shortage is very serious, but we are happy that so many people in our community are eager to get involved in ways they might not have thought possible,” Bass said.

While anyone who needs a mask is welcome, front-line medical staff will be given priority.

Bass offered these tips to ensure the masks volunteers make are as safe and effective as possible:

  • Wash fabric in hot water prior to sewing.
  • Use 1/6-inch round cord or 1/8-inch braided elastic for straps.
  • Heavy, non-stretch fabric is ideal for the outer layer.
  • Cotton or cotton-blend, non-stretch fabric is ideal for the inner lining.
  • If elastic is not available, fabric ties can be sewn on the mask — one tie on each of the four corners.

Fabric masks are far from an ideal solution, and their use is not widespread as of yet. Cloth masks are not to be used with patients who are infected with COVID-19, but the masks can be used for other medical concerns. In turn, this will leave appropriate masks available for infected patients.

But with a dwindling supply of N95 masks and a surge in virus cases, health care facilities are preparing for the worst. Many hospitals are asking for donations of fully constructed cloth masks but also are welcoming fabric and elastic to make their own masks.

Joann Fabrics and Craft Stores also are getting in on the cloth mask trend. In addition to taking masks to area hospitals that are dropped off at stores by volunteers, they are opening classrooms to anyone who wants to help customers safely make face masks for donation. Joann Fabrics will provide and donate 100 percent of the supplies needed for these projects for those who come into the stores. The retail outlet will adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The college will be collecting masks at a drive-thru drop-off at the Gateway Technology Center at the front of campus from 3–7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.