Mar 25, 2020
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Sewing machines become latest weapon against coronavirus as California volunteers swing into action

Mar 25, 2020

Smita Paul has been sewing scarves and clothing for her small fashion business since 2003 but ever since the coronavirus struck the Bay Area and created a shortage in personal protective equipment for hospital workers, she has switched from sewing scarves to sewing masks.

Smita Paul, founder of Indigo Handloom, sews face masks, in Oakland, California, U.S., March 23, 2020

“We are all horrified. The idea of one of my friends having to go into this situation without having any protective gear, I just can’t imagine,” said Paul. “If we can do one little thing, we’re going to do it.”

Paul is among a growing number eager to answer desperate calls from healthcare workers on social media and community forums asking for assistance in acquiring masks, gloves and other equipment needed to protect them against the pandemic that has killed at least 660 people in the United States and sickened more than 50,000.

Craig Enis, 50, works as a registered subacute nurse at Generations Healthcare in Walnut Creek, California. He said the facility is running low on surgical masks, gowns for isolation rooms, and hand sanitizer.

“N95-masks are just nonexistent right now,” he said.

Enis is afraid for himself as a healthcare worker and for his vulnerable patients, but nothing scares him more than possibly bringing home the virus to his two children.

“It’s incredibly scary because I’m a single father, and they have no choice but to be with me, so whatever I come home with, they’re exposed to,” Enis said.

A Google spreadsheet circulating online showed informal requests for almost three dozen medical facilities in the Bay Area, including the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF), Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health. Each request described items the facilities would accept and how to deliver them.

With California under a stay-at-home order, Paul rallied volunteer sewers to help. She has posted an instructional video on YouTube, provided kits with materials, and coordinated deliveries.

“We’re all volunteering, and it just shows what a group of concerned citizens can do. We’ll probably get 100 masks out today,” said Paul, whose company, Indigo Handloom, is partnering with community members, including City College of San Francisco’s fashion department, to increase mask production.

Anne Cocquyt, 36, in San Francisco, spent the weekend collecting unused and unopened boxes of N95-masks for nurses at Kaiser. She said she felt compelled to help after hearing reports on social media that nurses were cutting up plastic bottles to use as face shields.

“That’s when we said ‘OK, we need to do something right now,’” Cocquyt said. “This is a drop in the bucket but at the same time this might be one day’s worth of supplies for the nurses in the ER.”

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said it was working to increase its supply of protective gear as quickly as possible and develop “a process to efficiently collect, inventory, inspect, and distribute these donations.”

UCSF, meanwhile, set up three donation sites that opened on Monday. A statement called the donations critical for frontline employees.

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