Grassroots sewing efforts bolster NJ mask supply
Lisa Zahakos is a stay-at-home mom now, but for 15 years she worked as a physician's assistant in New Jersey and New York.
Because of her many contacts in the medical profession, several weeks ago she began to see an abundance of social media posts, night after night, pleading for anyone who had access to face masks to provide them for frontline workers fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.
Zahakos said she knows how to sew and immediately thought to help but wanted to make more than just an individual contribution.
"New Jersey did not have a localized group, so I started, in the middle of the night, I just made a little Facebook group and reached out to a few people I know, and in a week we had 2,000 people," she said.
The volunteers she recruited to her Sew AWAY Corona page range in age from 8-year-old girls to grandmothers.
As the coronavirus pandemic has continued to evolve, so too have Zahakos' priorities on what hospital staff needs. So that is why she has also launched a GoFundMe page with a target of $10,000 for personal protective equipment like N95 respirators.
She said the cloth masks she and her volunteers have been busy sewing do not protect against COVID-19 on their own, but they can help extend the life of the N95s when worn over them. She has procured 5,000 surgical masks so far.
"I'm trying to keep the group going in that direction, that yes, we're sewing these fabric mask covers, yes they help, but it's a little Band-Aid to the real problem of getting them the real medical equipment that they need," Zahakos said.
The fabric masks do have a definite purpose, especially for regular citizens who must now wear them on trips into stores by order of Gov. Phil Murphy. Students and faculty in the Fashion Merchandising and Design program at Mercer County Community College, under the direction of professor Katina Lindsay, are holding virtual "sew-a-thons" every Saturday afternoon in April, with their masks destined for community organizations, to be distributed for public use.
But within hospitals, even more intricate materials are being called for. Zahakos said she and others have started to make headbands with buttons, which doctors and nurses are finding useful to affix the elastics of their masks to, as the elastics had been causing many to develop pressure ulcers due to constant use.
Some participants in the Sew AWAY Corona group are now even 3D printing face shields to OSHA specifications, which are necessary to meet for the shields to be approved for official PPE use.