It started with a neighborhood email group and a handful of south Los Altos residents eager to help meet local health-care workers’ overwhelming need for personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Approximately a month later, the South Los Altos Mask Sewing Group has grown to 92 members hailing from Los Altos, Cupertino, Saratoga, Sunnyvale and west San Jose. Together, they’re responsible for crafting more than 745 face masks used by doctors, nurses and support staff across the Bay Area.
“It’s not ever what I suspected would come out of this,” said Lori Cunningham, a Los Altos resident spearheading the operation. “It’s sort of just a happy accident.”
Discussion between Cunningham and other members of the Highlands email group contemplating the best design for homemade masks attracted the attention of Dave Singhal. His wife is a surgical oncologist. Why not solicit her opinion?
Together, Cunningham, president of the Cupertino Union School District Board of Education, and Dr. Shyamali Singhal, director of the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center, created and tested eight or nine mask prototypes. They wanted a model that would fit over an N95 respirator and prolong its life. And physicians working in private practices around the hospital could use the masks and lessen the demand for N95s so those could be worn on the coronavirus front lines.
“I thought for my co-workers and all these other different people, some of these masks would be really helpful – better than nothing if you can’t get an N95,” Dr. Singhal said.
Dr. Singhal passed along a pattern perfected by Deaconess Health System of Indiana. She also identified surgical draping, the paper-like, polypropylene cloth operating room instruments are sterilized in, as an excellent material for the project and asked the El Camino Hospital operating room nurses to save it for her instead of throwing it away.
Now Cunningham’s house is churning daily with activity. Dr. Singhal and other hospital workers leave the surgical draping in one half of a giant box on the porch. Cunningham collects it, strips it of labels and tape and then runs it through the sterile cycles of her clothes washer and dryer. She folds the cloth into paper lunch sacks and places them in the other half of the box for the small army of mask makers to collect and sew together. Upon their return to Cunningham’s house, the finished masks are washed again and then bundled into bags featuring instructions for use and a note thanking those who wear them for their continuing service during the crisis.
“Seven-hundred masks is a lot if it was just one person, but really, the beauty of this is everybody coming together,” Cunningham said. “It’s such a group effort, it’s such an organic thing that just came out of people caring about their fellow human beings. And I know that’s the part that keeps me going.”
Through physician feedback, the group has perfected their design over time. They realized, for example, the practicality of using draping of different colors for each side of the masks so wearers remembered which one to place against their faces. With elastic a scarce commodity, straps became a fastening alternative, and a superior one at that because they don’t cause as much pressure. The wire used to create bridges for noses had to be rust-free to withstand washing; twist-ties proved useless, but gardening wire – and even plastic-coated paper clips – sufficed.
In addition to the El Camino Health Foundation, beneficiaries of the South Los Altos Mask Sewing Group include Sunnyvale Community Services, school district nutrition staff and employees of Cepheid, the Sunnyvale-based molecular diagnostics company recently awarded with U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its rapid COVID-19 test.
So many have expressed encouraging gratitude, including Dr. Singhal, who uses the homemade masks when she’s on call.
“We physicians are working hard, but it’s nice to know the community is supportive of all that,” she said. “I mean, everyone could be watching TV, and they’re choosing to make masks.”