Hospitals in the Princeton region accept homemade masks for limited use

Homemade masks donated to the Pennington Quilt Works by area residents.

By contributor Marc Monseau

As hospitals nationwide prepare for a potential surge in COVID-19 patients, some health systems have called on citizen sewers to help mitigate potential supply shortfalls by creating homemade masks for healthcare workers.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises doctors and nurses to only use homemade masks as a last resort when treating patients with COVID-19, Evansville, Indiana-based Deaconess Hospital made headlines in mid-March when, citing shortages, it called for homemade masks for staff fighting the virus. The regional healthcare provider went so far as to provide an instructional video on mask manufacture.

Many hospitals in the Princeton area are likewise seeking donations of homemade masks as they shore-up supplies in the face of the burgeoning pandemic. However, in accordance with CDC guidance, those masks are unlikely to be used by doctors and nurses on the front lines fighting COVID-19.

“Homemade masks are not used in a clinical setting,” said Jennifer McGowan-Smith, spokesperson for St Francis Medical Center in an e-mail. “Those colleagues providing care to persons under investigation or to a confirmed COVID-19 patient follow personal protective equipment guidelines provided by the CDC. Homemade masks are being accepted only for our colleagues who prefer to wear a face mask but do not provide patient care.”

Similarly, Capital Health System accepts homemade masks but does not allow them to be used on their own for at-risk patients, like those diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Where the homemade masks are used within the hospital depends on the level of care the patient is undergoing,” said Kate Stier, spokesperson for Capital Health. “Homemade masks do not replace N95 respirators.” Stier added that all donated homemade masks are washed, bleached and sanitized before use.

The CDC doesn’t consider homemade masks to be personal protective equipment since there’s no evidence they prevent the spread of microscopic viruses like COVID-19. Instead, the CDC recommends that homemade masks only be used if medical-grade facemasks are unavailable and then only in combination with face shields that fully cover the face and neck.

While homemade masks are not recommended for use by health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, they could still be used to help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, physicians say.

“They are good for patients, but not for protocols,” said Dr. Jennifer Dyer, a pediatric endocrinology physician and mobile health entrepreneur based in Columbus, Ohio. Dyer cited guidance from the Ohio Department of Health Director, Dr. Amy Acton. According to Acton, while the mesh in a homemade mask isn’t going to keep a microscopic virus from being breathed in, it will protect the wearer from sneezing on others.

Every time we cough, sneeze or even talk, we emit small droplets of moisture from the upper respiratory system. Since these droplets could carry viruses like COVID-19, preventing their spread could prevent the spread of disease.

According to Johns Hopkins, masks like the N95 respirators are made of a material that removes at least 95% of even the smallest droplets. Surgical masks are also made of a special material, but, since they don’t provide a seal around the nose and mouth like the N95, they may not prevent the inhalation of smaller droplets.

Though homemade masks won’t remove smaller droplets and don’t provide a seal around the nose and mouth, they may reduce the spread of large droplets. For this reason, homemade cloth masks are only being considered for use as a last resort.

For those crafty sewers interested in contributing to the supplies of healthcare systems accepting homemade masks, it is best to check with the healthcare system first to determine their requirements and whether they accept homemade masks before breaking out the sewing machine.

For instance, Penn Medicine Princeton Health will not accept homemade masks, though it is accepting surgical masks, N95 respirators, disposable, water-resistant gowns or coveralls, hand sanitizer, protective eyewear, and gloves unused and in their original packaging.

Both St Francis Medical Center and Atlantic Health System provide their own specifications for making homemade masks. St Francis will only accept masks made of 100% cotton with a minimum of 160 thread count per square inch. In contrast, Atlantic Health System doesn’t set strict limitations on the materials used, but only stipulates that masks are made using tightly woven cotton with a soft cotton back layer.

Central New Jersey’s own Pennington Quilt Works has likewise created a tutorial video and is accepting masks which are then donated to local hospitals.