Donations of Masks: A Grassroots Response to COVID-19

N95 Respiraor and some common surgical masks

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COVID-19 caught most of us off guard. It was nothing, and then it was something — and then it was THE thing. Suddenly, a miniscule speck, undetectable to the human eye, had captured our full attention and become our mortal enemy.

Rising to the threat, South Carolinians have found creative ways to band together and support one another through this onslaught. Dr. Sanford Zeigler, medical director at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Cardiovascular intensive care unit in Charleston, is such an example. When he began hearing that many health care workers felt like they had been abandoned in the fight, Dr. Zeigler, with the help of his brother, Townsend, mounted a campaign to gather as much personal protective equipment (PPE) for them as they could find.

The approach was simple and straightforward: Appeal to everyday people to donate their unused PPE supplies.

“This stuff is sitting in peoples’ garages and at their businesses. If we can just get it out of there and into a hospital that’s just a mile or two away, then you can bridge that gap until the rest of the world and the supply chain can get behind it,” they reasoned.

Social media would be the vehicle to get the information out there.

A visit to their website, www.heroesneedmasks.com, explained what supplies were most urgently needed, what guidelines apply and where to drop off items in the greater Charleston area and beyond. Donors were encouraged to take pictures and post to social media. The results were amazing. The first donation consisted of 240 masks from a paint store in Columbia.

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Dr. John Dinolfo, assistant professor at MUSC’s Center for Academic Excellence, heard about Heroes Need Masks from his wife Debbie. The couple remembered tucking away three boxes of N95 masks after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. For the Dinolfos, donating 60 masks was as simple as a phone call and a quick drop-off.

Dr. Zeigler’s premise has been correct: Many people have unused N95 or surgical procedure masks stored in their homes or businesses. Beauticians, morticians, veterinarians, painters, pest control professionals, chemical workers, dentists, construction workers, manicurists and boat makers are just a few examples of professions that use these masks regularly. Donating to Heroes Need Masks will get PPE supplies funneled directly to the hot spots for both present and future needs.

While N95 masks are most necessary for health care workers, both MUSC and Heroes Need Masks are also accepting home-sewn face covers. Experts seem to agree that the general public does not need N95 masks but that some protection is definitely better than none at all, especially for those at high risk. The most protective fabric is the Halyard H600 blue polyester fabric used to wrap hospital equipment. It is relatively cheap and easy to find online. Heroes Need Masks has been partnering with local crafters to produce high-quality masks with this fabric and distribute them where they are needed most. Another fabric option is 100%, tightly woven cotton – think pillowcases – which can be sewn with a wire nose guard and slots for inserting disposable filters. Helpful instructions are available at several websites, including www.gnvcovidmasks.org/how-to-make-masks/.

Thankfully, MUSC has not actually faced any major PPE shortages. This is as much because of early and aggressive leadership in obtaining PPE as it is good fortune in that South Carolina has avoided a large surge of COVID-19 patients thus far. If you have professional masks or the ability to make home-sewn ones, please consider becoming involved in your community or connecting with a networking organization such as Heroes Need Masks.

COVID-19 will be with us for a while. The better prepared we are to withstand it, the healthier we all will be.

By Janet E. Perrigo

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