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Masking Together 

Central Oregonians mobilize to make more personal protective equipment—with safety in mind, of course

This past Tuesday, the Facebook group Central Oregon Emergency Mask Makers literally didn't exist. As of this writing, on Sunday, it had 1,041 members, after being created just Wednesday.

The group's sole goal: To get more masks, visors and other protective equipment into the hands of people who need it—but first and foremost, to do it safely, without risking the further spread of COVID-19. As of Sunday, nine people in Deschutes County are reported as having the virus, with another 75 in the county testing negative thus far.

click to enlarge The C.O. Emergency Mask Makers group wants to mobilize locals to make masks—but first, they have to develop the safety protocols that prevent the masks from further spreading COVID-19. - COURTESY CASSONDRA CARPER
  • Courtesy Cassondra Carper
  • The C.O. Emergency Mask Makers group wants to mobilize locals to make masks—but first, they have to develop the safety protocols that prevent the masks from further spreading COVID-19.

A worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment, often called PPE, has had St. Charles Health System concerned for some time. On Thursday, it put out a call to the local community, asking people to donate PPE at school lunch drop sites, where food delivery days have now been extended to include spring break.

Earlier this week, Gov. Kate Brown asked other clinics, including dentists, vets and others to cease non-emergency procedure to preserve PPE, and to consider donating it to people working with COVID-19 patients.

Seeing the need, Timothy Gorbold, a product innovation developer at RuffWear in Bend, told the Source that he went onto the page of the Facebook group, Pandemic Partners Bend, where he connected with Laura Wang, a former ER nurse turned stay-at-home mom whose husband is a medical device distributor, and Elisa Rebecca Melton, who works in product management, and whose husband is the manager of the surgical unit in Bandon, Oregon. The group then formed its own Facebook home, Central Oregon Emergency Mask Makers.

The founders' backgrounds complement one another, Gorbold explained, each with the requisite skills and knowledge to move good ideas, backed with medical expertise, into responsible production. Right now, Gorbold said in addition to putting out face mask patterns, they're working on developing the protocols to make sure the masks people make—which the group recognizes as an ideal occupation for worried individuals stuck at home—don't themselves become vectors of the virus.

"You've got a lot of individuals trying to do something," Gorbold said. "It's very easy to make these masks. It's very difficult to put the protocols in place to keep everybody safe. Who's touching the masks? Where are they going? You can't imagine a better product to spread the virus than a mask. That's what keeps me up at night."

Gorbold explained how the group is applying design thinking to form the group and move forward. "First, we have to figure out what the problem is—it's to provide cloth masks that can also be worn over the N95 mask. Right now, nurses are being told that they have to wash their N95, so anything we can do to extend the life of an N95 is good."

While it's not yet clear whether health care workers at St. Charles itself would eventually be able to use homemade masks created by this group and other willing volunteers, there are plenty of other health care workers in the community who potentially could. 

"We don't just wear that [PPE] for this COVID-19 thing," reminded Cassondra Carper, an ER nurse and half-time Bendite who spends the other half of her time working for a large hospital system in the Sacramento area, and who joined the Central Oregon Emergency Mask Makers group to help out. "People are still sick and contagious and bringing in all these new things."

Carper said at this point, each facility is following its own protocols for whether or not to accept homemade masks.

"It seems to be facility to facility based. Some hospitals are saying yes. Some are saying 'not yet'—but there are more places that are not being thought of. There's also nursing homes, pharmacies, even the prison system," Carper told the Source Sunday. On Thursday, local Bend veterinarian, Dr. Byron Maas, told the Source that his office, workers place PPE in an autoclave, allowing equipment to be sterilized and used again later, thereby cutting down on the overall need.

Gorbold said his group, which includes a number of medical professionals, has been in contact with St. Charles, and is partnering with a 3D printing service to help develop printed face shields, in addition to supporting people in making masks and gowns.

St. Charles did not respond to our request for information on its take on homemade PPEs by the time we published this story, but in an inquiry to the Oregon Health Authority this week, a spokesperson said that Oregon hospitals as a whole continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding what PPE hospital workers can use.

According to CDC guidelines updated last week, the guidelines for times of "Crisis Capacity" are:

"In settings where facemasks are not available, HCP [health care providers] might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option. Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face."

An Oregon garment factory moves into action on PPE

The Central Oregon group is just one of many businesses and individuals working to provide more PPE in the state, as supply chains globally remain disrupted. 
click to enlarge On Instagram, Britt Howard, who founded Portland Garment Factory in 2008, shared her plans to produce as many as 2,500 masks per week at her facility in northeast Portland. - PGF
  • PGF
  • On Instagram, Britt Howard, who founded Portland Garment Factory in 2008, shared her plans to produce as many as 2,500 masks per week at her facility in northeast Portland.

Britt Howard, owner of Portland Garment Factory in Portland—which crafts its own line of designer clothing as well as doing production lines for other businesses—put her employees to work sewing PPE this week. (Disclosure: She's a friend, and my daughter did a job shadow at PGF one summer.)

"Our Front Line Barrier mask is now in production. Getting masks to the medical community is our first priority," Howard announced on PGF's Instagram page Friday, adding that the factory had set up safety procedures to craft the masks safely. "Our first 2500 are now sold out.... We hope to produce and ship 2500 per week if not more. Disposable gowns are also in the works, and will be available to medical professionals soon. In addition to the Front Line Barrier mask we are working on a 'Side Line' mask and 'Helper' mask for communities beyond the medical world," Howard explained. 

Back in Bend, Gormond says his group is still working on protocols.

Next up: A call for locals to sew masks, using 100% cotton material. People should check back at the group's Facebook page at Central Oregon Emergency Mask Makers for updates and guidance on when to start making masks, and what steps to take when making them and dropping them off.

For a group that didn't even exist last week, that seems like a reasonable request. 

Find all our COVID-19 coverage at our Coronavirus HQ

About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. (Blame her for everything since then.) Favorite car: A Trek commuter bike. Favorite cat: An adopted dog who looks like a Jedi master. Favorite things, besides responding to your comments: Downton Abbey re-runs, Aretha Franklin albums, and pink wine.
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