Locals Produce Homemade Medical Masks; Experts Advise Caution

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Mask-maker groups are spreading on Facebook as people stuck at home search for ways to help in the COVID-19 crisis. Photo Credit: Shelley Blume/Coachella Valley Mask Makers

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Local groups are springing up across the state to produce homemade face masks for medical providers if they run out of the real thing. But some experts say the masks may do more harm than good.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website that health care providers might use homemade masks as a last resort. But Ken Zinn, political director with National Nurses United, said the N95 respirator is the minimum protection necessary for all health care workers.

“They downgraded the guidance to allow hospitals to say to nurses and other front-line workers, ‘Well, just wear a scarf or a bandanna,'” Zinn said. “This is absurd. Scarves, bandannas, surgical masks, none of them keep front-line health care workers safe.”

2015 study published in the British Journal of Medicine cautioned against cloth face masks, saying they may increase infections because they retain too much moisture and don’t filter out enough particles. Some doctors have warned they may give a false sense of security.

On Monday, North America’s Building Trades Unions announced its member groups will be donating N95 respirator masks to local hospitals around the nation.

Shelley Blume is a volunteer with Coachella Valley Mask Makers, which is handing out kits that enable people to make paper-cloth masks with a glue gun. She said the group hopes to make 1,000 masks a day, then sanitize them and make them available to local hospitals.

“So these masks are not meant to replace the personal-protection equipment mask,” Blume said. “They are to supplement medical staff who otherwise would not have a mask.”

Hospitals are scrambling to see if they can accept the masks and figure out under what circumstances they night be used. Tenet Healthcare, which runs 13 hospitals in the state, said it will accept hand-made items once the CDC issues guidelines.

The California Department of Public Health on Monday declined to give guidance on homemade masks, directing people to call their local hospital to inquire.