Westminster cosplayer Candace Birger is putting her skills to a new use — crafting face masks for health care workers and first responders to help protect them
As cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, continue to rise, health care workers and first responders have been forced to extremes to deal with shortages of personal protective gear, particularly N95 face masks. Doctors and nurses have been forced to reuse the masks, meant to be disposable, for many days at a time, and using other coverings or sanitization techniques to try to extend their lifespan.
And now some people in the Carroll County community — from cosplay crafters to a local company equipped for 3-D printing — are stepping up to help.
“The cosplay community was putting out face mask patterns saying, ‘help your local health care facilities,’ ” the Westminster resident said, something she was initially skeptical of because she had heard only N95 masks were being accepted in hospitals. Then she put out a post on Facebook offering to make cloth masks for anyone if they would agree to donate their N95 masks to Carroll Hospital.
No one took her up on that offer, but the response from health care workers was enormous — in a little over a week she received hundreds of requests.
“You can even just look on the two posts that I made on Westminster Online Community, they have hundreds of comments, and that does not include the private messages. It is insane,” she said. “I guess they have been recommending that they use them to prolong the filter use. So they’ve all been given like one N95 mask at the facilities and then to prolong the use of that you put a fabric mask over it.”
Birger is now a member of a loose group of volunteers around the Carroll area coordinated through the Covid 19 Carroll County Mask Makers Facebook group founded by Julie Thieberger Rosenthal, until recently of Eldersburg and now living in Reisterstown. The newly founded group has also seen explosive growth in a short time.
“Friday [March 21], I made a mask and posted it on the Sykesville page and a nurse from Fort Meade contacted me and said, ‘Oh my God, can you please make some of these?’ ” Rosenthal said. “So Saturday morning I made a Facebook page and I think now I am afraid to look.”
As of Wednesday evening, the group had more than 650 members — 70 volunteers who sew, 20 who pick up and drop off the finished masks, and others who donate materials — and had sewn and donated more than 2,600 free masks to health care workers all around the region, including at Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, Frederick Hospital, Sinai Hospital and University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, according to the group’s records.
“My friend said she had a group that were making [masks] and basically I reached out to her and said that we could use them. It would help us greatly,” said Samantha Persing, a nurse at the cancer center. “We’re reusing the same masks for 12 hours at a time, and having the handmade masks helps ensure there is extra protection for the masks we are wearing.”
As of April 1, Rosenthal said, the group has had more than 4,000 requests for masks.
“Nurses are begging us for masks,” Rosenthal said. “We have eight county stops with boxes on porches [for drivers to pick up masks], so no contact. Drivers that move this around daily.”
Birger is active in the group as well, and on March 29 she delivered an order of her masks to the Reese and Community Volunteer Fire Company, where they were sorely needed, according to Chief Kenneth Hyde.
“We have an allotment of N95s and currently we have like 100 left at the current time,” he said in a Monday interview. “We are waiting for [the Maryland Emergency Management Agency] to get supplies in,” he said. “The problem is we are burning an average of 12 to 20 a day. We’ve got like a five-day supply.”
Realizing they needed to do something, the Reese company put out a call for help through social media.
“One firm is going to donate some N95 masks to us. Another person brought surgical masks in, and then Candace called about the making of the masks with the HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filter inside,” he said.
Birger’s design is a two-layer cotton mask with pockets where cut pieces of a household HEPA filter can be inserted.
“The reason that I do a filter pocket versus sewing in a filter is because then you can take the filter out, change the filter, but you can also completely sanitize the fabric mask," she said. “You can go old-school [World War II] and stick it in boiling water, or you can do a full wash.”
Birger’s masks and some of those made by the Carroll County Mask Makers Facebook group can be worn over an N95 mask or on their own, but they’re fully aware that these are not going to offer the same protection as a certified N95 mask, properly fitted and worn.
“I checked with Dave Coe, who is in charge of [the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association] EMS, and he said, ‘Well, they are not approved, and we all know that, but get ‘em in case you get the point where you have nothing; it’s better than nothing.’ ”
The science is not entirely clear on how effective different DIY masks might be at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, but there is some evidence that even something as simple as a bandanna could afford some protection.
A document summarizing the current evidence from the Stanford Medicine Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab included a table showing the comparative effectiveness of various mask materials in filtering viral-sized particles, in this case the bacteriophage MS2 virus. Surgical masks rated 90% effective, vacuum cleaner bags 86%, tea towels 72%, antimicrobial pillow cases 69%, cotton T-shirts 51% and scarves 49%.
“Recently a durable platform technology was developed, which introduces copper oxide to textile fibers, latex and other polymer products,” the study authors wrote. “The copper oxide impregnated products possess broad-spectrum anti-microbial properties including antiviral properties.”
While U.S. public health officials had initially recommended against the general public masking up if they were not ill — at least when it came to N95 masks — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reconsidering that recommendation. And in terms of preventing people who are infected with the coronavirus, and might be asymptomatic, from spreading it, N95 masks impregnated with copper oxide may be unnecessary. A 2009 study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that surgical masks were about as effective as N95 masks in preventing people with influenza from spreading the flu when coughing.
At Reese, Hyde said, the plan is to try and preserve N95 masks for calls when a person is suspected of having COVID-19, and using homemade masks as extra insurance in other situations.
“We typically do not put an N95 on for a patient unless they have some type of illness that would require that,” he said. “But for other calls, there may be people sick who don’t really know it, so we would like to give a level of comfort to our volunteers and paid staff.”
The official adoption of such DIY masks, though, is still narrow. Carroll Hospital, for instance, is not accepting mask donations, according to Selena Mowery, director of marketing and communications.
But while hand- or machine-sewn masks are filling some gaps immediately and informally, masks of a more sophisticated manufacture might soon meet hospital approvals and help fill in for more critical situations.
Zach Tomlin is taking his IT company, Westminster-based Tomlin Technology Inc., in that direction.
“We’re a tech company and it’s been bugging me. How do we fit in and restructure a bit to help with this epidemic?” he said.
After finding open-sourced plans for using 3-D printers to print face masks, Tomlin and his company decided to jump all in, got monetary donations from other companies, and ordered machinery.
“We are up to over $3,000 in donations and now have nine printers on the way,” he said. “We have some organizations that have said their workers are not doing so much right now, so they have donated their space for us to set up some of these machines.”
The masks will be made of a type of flexible plastic called “PLA filament,” according to Tomlin, with disposable filter cartridges slipped into each mask unit.
“You can reuse them because you can swap out that cartridge component, and then sanitize the mask portion, and then just slap in a new cartridge,” he said.
Printing a single mask could take up to two hours, Tomlin said, hence the order for nine printers total.
“If we have five printers running we could produce maybe 28 masks per day,” he said, while noting that printing the filter cartridge portion is faster. “If we can print six filtration units in that same time, then one person can wear that mask and then swap out six filtration units.”
Tomlin said he hopes to get the first of the printers in by the beginning of the week of April 6 and get running quickly after that; they, too, will be donating the masks they produce.
“We want no monetary gain in this whatsoever,” he said. “We’re all in this together. If our health care professionals get sick, if our first responders get sick, who is going to be there?”
Tomlin has been speaking to fire companies in Carroll, including Reese, as well as Jordan Evans on the innovation team at LifeBridge Health, the parent company of Carroll County that has been exploring getting people like Tomlin to 3-D print face shields for their staff.
But while Tomlin has the big expenses, the 3-D printers, taken care of, he could use donations of materials or small monetary donations to help fund the production of masks — and later shields — as he gets going. He estimates it will cost $2 to produce each mask.
“If a roll of filament is $20, then a $10 donation buys me a half roll of filament,” Tomlin said. “We got the big money taken care of, so now even $5 is great.”
As for materials, they need 1.75-millimeter PLA filament in 1-kilogram (2.2 pounds) spools, 4-inch Mini Cool Shot glue sticks and latex-free disposable tourniquets.
The Carroll County Mask Makers will also need more donations of materials and volunteers to turn them into usable masks, according to Rosenthal, especially if they ramp up to provide more masks to the general public.
“We need sewing people, and we are quickly running out of fabric and supplies — cotton quilting (not quilted) fabric (not knit or stretch). Money donations help too,” she wrote in an email. “We have requests from hospitals as far as Virginia and Pennsylvania filling out our request form.”
Those looking to donate may do so through the group’s GoFundMe page, at tinyurl.com/tv4wrbo, where they have raised more than $1,900, and those hoping to request masks can do so with the group’s request form at tinyurl.com/sxasdtz.
Birger, for her part, is quite good on supplies, in part due to her cosplay hobby and in part due to early donations from friends. But she encourages others to volunteer, if only for the psychological benefits of getting engaged and helping others at a time when many of the typical avenues for volunteering are necessarily shut down.
“I feel less helpless. I feel like most people feel like they’re stuck at home with not much to do, no way to help the situation. You’re kind of at the whim and mercy of the storm, basically,” she said. “But for me, when I saw that people were asking, I thought, ‘That’s a need I can fill.’ ”