Following advice from the U.S. Department of Defense amid a nationwide shortage of protective face masks for personnel on the front lines of the coronavirus fight, the Maryland National Guard is advising its members to begin making their own cloth masks.
“We are in the process of issuing guidance to our troops that will mirror the guidance provided yesterday by the Secretary of Defense regarding fashioning and wearing cloth respiratory masks,” confirmed Lt. Col. Wayde Minami, a Maryland National Guard spokesman, in a statement to The Baltimore Sun on Monday. “While not an ideal solution, the CDC has indicated that even home-made masks have some protective value.”
Some members who are given particularly risky assignments have been provided medical-grade masks, Minami said, as the Guard is “prioritizing equipment for those whose missions place them at the greatest risk.”
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The efficacy of wearing homemade cloth masks has increasingly entered the national dialogue in recent days, after President Donald Trump on Friday announced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended everyone wear a simple, cloth mask to reduce the spread of the virus. Medical masks still should be reserved for medical personnel.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued guidance for military personnel wearing cloth masks.
“As an interim measure, all individuals are encouraged to fashion face coverings from household items or common materials, such as clean T-shirts or other clean cloths that can cover the nose and mouth area,” the guidance read. “Medical personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators or surgical masks will not be issued for this purpose as these will be reserved for the appropriate personnel.”
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The guidance followed past assertions by administration officials that masks were not necessary or even helpful. State officials in recent days have said cloth masks could be worn by people to help prevent their own spreading of the virus.
National Guard members, who do not usually have to produce their own equipment when responding to duty, are being told that any masks they make for themselves should be in traditional military colors, and not have any patterns or messages on them.
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Minami provided images of National Guard members wearing proper medical masks as they assisted returning cruise ship passengers in Baltimore and at a coronavirus screening site. But there aren’t enough masks to go around.
Gov. Larry Hogan activated the state’s guard last month; thousands were expected to be called up statewide.
Guard members have been deployed in Maryland for a range of assignments, including setting up a field hospital within the Baltimore Convention Center, and distributing face shields and other protective equipment to front line healthcare workers across the state from a Strategic National Stockpile site near Baltimore.
They also have been deployed to food distribution sites within the city, and tapped to help set up testing sites for the virus. Many are working and traveling together and operating in the public during the day, and then returning home to their families at night.
“Operating in a pandemic environment is inherently risky, but our soldiers and airmen know that the uniforms they wear come with certain obligations, including putting themselves in harm’s way for the good of the people we protect,” Minami said. “Their courage and dedication in this regard has been beyond reproach.”
Major Kurt M. Rauschenberg, another Maryland National Guard spokesman, declined to answer questions about the number of members who have been infected with the coronavirus or what is being done for them and their families, but said their health and well-being is a top priority.
"In times of emergency, the Maryland National Guard is always ready to support our communities,” Rauschenberg said. “We will ensure unified and rapid response efforts between state agencies and other partners. This is a neighbors-helping-neighbors situation. We’re in this together, we’ll get through this together.”