*Editor's note: After this article was published, Project Mask WS released an updated count of the masks that have been made and delivered. That number was double their original count, and has been updated in the online version of this article. As of April 16, Project Mask celebrates one month of mask-making with its 25,000th mask, and have raised over $25,000 for supplies to purchase mask materials.
COVID-19 has caused a mass shortage of medical supplies making face masks in high-demand, especially for those working with vulnerable populations. On Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reported that officials from the Center for Disease Control are “considering altering the official guidance to encourage people to take measures to cover their faces amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
A Winston-Salem-based Facebook group with over 1,300 members have organized and mobilized in less than two weeks to make 6,888 masks for health care providers during the pandemic. Project Mask WS began on Facebook, when the group’s co-founder Melissa Vickers saw a post from Deaconess requesting that the community make masks to help with the shortage. Vickers’s background is in interior design, but she also owns the small business, Mama Llama, where she makes handbags, weighted blankets (for kids), weighted lap pads (for adults), and most recently, book sleeves. After recruiting vice president of Action4Equity Katie Sonnen-Lee, and marketing coordinator for Black Mountain Chocolate Marissa Joyce, Vickers started the Facebook group, Project Mask WS, on Sunday, March 22. Since then, the group has grown to 1,300 members in total, with 497 volunteer sewists. Each mask is composed of two layers of 100% cotton cut into two 6-inch by 9-inch rectangles and two elastic or fabric straps. Joyce said that it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to make one mask, and 1 yard of fabric can make 24 masks.
“Even if you are a decent sewist, making five [masks] would be a solid hour of work,” Joyce said. “It feels like Katie, Melissa and I are getting all the credit because we started the group, but the amount of masks that we have made versus the amount that everyone else has made is ridiculous. This is an extreme community effort; no one can sew over 3,000 masks on their own, and none of us could have done this without the entire group helping out and the entire community surrounding us.”
Vickers estimated that 98% of Project Mask WS is composed of women.
“We are all strong feminists, and we have strong opinions on where women belong and deserve to be,” Joyce said. “Yet, the biggest thing we can do to help is sewing.”
“Most of the people who can sew are women, and who gets things done when you need something in communities?” Sonnen-Lee asked rhetorically. “Throughout history, it has been women organizing and women getting the job done that needs to get done. So, I am glad that all these women have banded together to sew. Some of them even have their husbands ironing or cutting for them. But again, it is women here to take care of the community, as we always do.”
“My husband has been home this week, and I couldn’t do this without him,” Vickers said. “I have two children, and he’s cooking and helping them with school right now. Shout out to the husbands supporting their women in this endeavor!”
Vickers reached out to the local fabric and sewing shop owners to communicate the needs for fabric and other sewing supplies to make the masks.
“I am super tight with Heather Zifchak at the Village Fabric Shop,” Vickers said, noting that she is one of the sewing instructors there. “She was on it instantly, asking what I needed, and brought me all of her sale fabrics and was like, ‘here is my donation.’ Then, we contacted Sew Original and Sewingly Yours, and they did not hesitate whatsoever.”
Sew Original, Sewingly Yours, and The Village Fabric Shop donated materials and JoAnn’s Fabrics offered to help cut and assemble the kits to make the project more efficient.
“All I have known about Melissa is when she wants to do something, she does it full out,” said Village Fabric Shop operator Heather Zifchak. “We bought all the elastic we could at JoAnn’s, and by Saturday, she was squeaking out a pattern. She reached out to her other two friends, Katie and Marissa, who I don’t even know. I had never met them, and now, I am talking to them every day.”
Zifchak even recruited some of her Sewing for Babies volunteers to help make masks.
“We have always done charity work; this is the two-year anniversary of our Sewing for Babies charity group, which sews for babies at the NICU in Winston hospitals,” Zifchak said. “It is just wild to think that a sewing machine, some fabric and thread, honestly could help someone this much. I know [we] are not on the front lines, but I am concerned about that sweet 70-year-old volunteer at the hospital who sits at the front desk. With this coronavirus, we are all to act like we might have it ourselves. That is how much safety precaution we should all be taking.”
Since its inception, Project MaskWS has raised over $5,000 to help with the cost of materials. Vickers said the money donated would go toward buying fabric, elastic and other supplies as well as supporting other local businesses.
“We are trying to be really conscientious of how the money is being spent within the community,” Vickers said. “I think we had to put in one order on Amazon for elastic, and that is because we bought out all of the elastic in Winston-Salem. We are trying to funnel as much effort and money into spreading the word about local businesses.”
In the group’s almost-two week existence, they have delivered 6,888 masks (and counting) to health care personnel working with the most vulnerable population in the Triad and surrounding areas. Still, over 11,000 more masks have been requested. So far, the masks have gone to Davie County EMS, Stokes County EMS, as well as various local ICUs and oncology departments.
“It is providing a sense of community and connectedness even as we are apart,” Joyce said of Project Mask WS. “It is really cool to see relationships and a sense of teamwork developing. I really hope that we are encouraging people to feel empowered even if they don’t have their medical licenses. There are small things that we can all do every day. A small thing like using sewing skills to make a mask, or just being very intentional about supporting local businesses and the economy that is going to be leftover after this. There is going to be small, daily decisions that we can make that can be for others as opposed to the most convenient thing for ourselves.”
“We are happy to do it,” Zifchak said. “We chuckle and say that the strapping ambulance drivers should [pose for] a calendar while wearing our beautiful daisy and ladybug print masks.”
Some volunteers of Project Mask WS only wash and dry, or cut the fabric because they can’t sew, while others lend their organizational skills or donate monetarily. There are no idle hands in this group because everyone has something to contribute. Joyce said she enjoys sewing but considers herself an amateur sewist. For Project Mask WS, she primarily uses her communication skills and social media talents to manage the group.
“It just felt so helpless that we sat at home when all the medical professionals are out there on the front lines doing heroic work,” she said when asked why she wanted to get involved. “If we could do anything to help, it is support the people that we love and support our community.”
Sonnen-Lee can’t sew, but she is lending her talents as the coordinator and organizer of the group. Sonnen-Lee communicates with providers and keeps a spreadsheet outlining the needs while keeping the inventory up to date, and every night she is also cutting fabric with her husband “on elastic duty” in addition to assembling the kits.
“My porch is the HQ of pick up and drop off,” Sonnen-Lee said of the main “Mask Cave.” “At night, I bring in all the masks and put them on the sanitize setting of my washer, to be safe. I count them out, let them know they are read, and we ask a volunteer to pick them up from the porch and take them where they need to go.”
“I meet at Katie’s front porch, her husband walks to the stuff to my car, then we meet in the parking lot, then we meet at my mailbox, and then we pass it off,” Zifchak said about how the masks making materials are collected and distributed during a time of social distancing.
After learning last Wednesday that the FDA suggested the use of high-quality 100% cotton, instead of flannel, Vickers said they changed the requirement and asked that no more flannel masks be made.
“There have been people messaging me or Melissa and go, ‘Are they FDA approved? Or ‘have these been clinically tested?’ Well, what do you think? No, they are not, but we do know that the FDA (and CDC) has said that they will screen out about 50% [of the masks we send], which 50% is better than no percent,” Zifchak said. “Right now, we have to save the proper PPE for the front line people. Let them have that, then let the back-of-the-office people, ambulance drivers, and everyone else have our fabric masks.”
So, why are a group of sewing enthusiasts donating their time, resources and skills to a multibillion-dollar industry? Because their community needs them.
“The girls and I are working like 16 hours a day for free, we are not getting paid,” Vickers said. “And we’re providing to an industry that makes how much money?”
“This has become a full-time job in the last week, it is so much more than what we were planning,” Joyce said. “But we are happy to do it because we want to do anything we can to help medical professionals who are out every day risking their lives.”
“Sewists are a community,” Zifchak said. “Hanes said they are going to start making 1.5 million masks during the next few weeks at their plants in Central America, but we aren’t guaranteed those are coming to Winston-Salem, even though they are a Winston company. Every night just watching the news, is when you hear these governors of these states, especially New York saying, I have 400 ventilators, I need 30,000—it just makes you realize that this mask can do something.”
While local factories try to figure out how to retool to help make these essential items, Sonnen-Lee said Project Mask WS is filling the gap, “with people sewing in their basement, bedrooms and living rooms.” And even though she thinks it is nice to see people come together for a good cause, she can’t help but wonder, “Why are we fighting this guerilla-style out of our basements where our sewing machines are set up? Where is the government? How is this how we are attacking [COVID-19] when we have known this was coming for months?”
Vickers, Sonnen-Lee, Joyce and Zifchak all agree that something everyone can do to stop the spread of the virus right now is to stay at home and keep social distancing.
“I am glad the shelter-in-place order is coming down, but I wish it were stronger than it is, to be honest,” Sonnen-Lee said. “That is the only thing that we can do is try to flatten the curve. People’s lives are more important than economics or whether we get to go to church on Easter. We have to save lives, and [staying at home] will save lives.”
Joyce believes that COVID-19 will be a pivotal moment in history, similar to what happened after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I feel like our culture is going to shift a bit after this,” she continued. “It has been difficult, but I also hope that we, as a culture, begin to value family time and the simple things in life.”
In the distant future, Vickers believes that COVID-19 will be a reminder for people to take the health of themselves and others more seriously. She could even see face masks becoming part of first aid kits.
“I think we should all have them,” Vickers said about the masks after COVID-19. “Even during flu season, we should all be taking better measures within our own home to protect ourselves and stay healthy.”
Vickers believes that the United States needs new leadership to prevent this unprecedented health crisis from happening again.
“This could have been prevented or at least minimized if it had been taken seriously early on,” she said. “I think this will go down in history as we were failed— but the writing was on the wall, right? Nobody could really trust what he said to begin with. We all knew he lied every single day, right? So, when it is a time our country needs to have somebody that we are following that are supposed to be leading the charge, how are we supposed to believe what is coming out of his mouth? We can’t. The only time I feel like he has said the truth is when he gets his press conferences, and says, ‘the economy after this will be like no other economy you have seen before.’ I think it is going to be worse than anything that we have ever experienced in our lifetime—for our generation. I don’t think it is going to bounce back, be amazing, or be right back where we were before.”
After COVID-19 passes, Vickers, Sonnen-Lee, Joyce and Zifchak believe that members of Project Mask WS will stay connected.
“In this time of social distancing, I have never felt so connected with so many people in the community,” Vickers said. “We are sharing this experience together and feeling these emotions together. We are laughing and crying; we are stressed and juggling families— that is a bond that will last forever. This group will continue to hang out, get together and sew.”
Join Project Mask WS, www.facebook.com/groups/projectmaskws/, to donate and help with sewing, delivering and prepping materials. Can’t sew or donate? Send the group some love and moral support through social media.