Faced With Mask Shortages, Nebraskans Are Getting Their Sewing Machines Out

March 27, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·

Up close look of numerous cloth facemasks
Omaha issued a mask mandate Tuesday which went into effect Wednesday. (File photo by Meredith Klein)

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Limited protective equipment is a problem nationwide for workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. While providers in Nebraska brace for a mask shortage, some communities are taking matters into their own hands.

Rachel Seiler recently got a strange email: years after working as a travel nurse, after moving home to a life near family in Lincoln, the state of New York wanted to enlist her to fight COVID-19.

A few weeks later, another, this time from Colorado: the state’s regulatory association was offering to waive expired licenses to anybody who could start work right away.

That’s when Seiler started to realize the scale of COVID-19’s spread in the US, and what kind of resources it would take to get the country through the pandemic.

“I read it, and I had goosebumps,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. I have not heard of this ever before.’”

Seiler started getting alarming texts from a friend in California, where one of the country’s biggest outbreaks has emerged. The friend wrote that hospitals had started locking masks up so they could be rationed.

“I was thinking of my other friends who are in health care and working right now, and we were like, ‘Okay, well, let's make some masks.’”

Seiler ended up posting a humble offer on Facebook to make them herself: virtually overnight, the project took on a life of its own. Soon after, she started posting updates of her family’s homespun operation and the prototypes they were designing—some fitted with cut up furnace filters to mimic a barrier from viral particles. Everybody was now involved: mom, dad, her sister, and Seiler’s husband. So far, they’ve received over 200 requests.

Rachel Seiler models a mask prototype. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Seiler)

And the family has become a force of production, fulfilling mask requests for as many as they can provide for, free of charge. Seiler mentioned a friend brought lunch over a few days ago so they could eat and stitch.
The project has given Seiler’s family a sense of purpose and structure amid the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic world: togetherness where it otherwise feels dangerous.

“It feels like the war effort,” Seiler mused. “It feels like we have little Victory Gardens, and we're collecting pantyhose, and scraps of metal.”

Sewing gives them a reason to not obsessively check reports, while also harnessing the skill her mother taught the sisters as homeschooled children.

“That's a skill that I'm very glad that I still have,” she said. “Her sewing machine is this old Kenmore machine from, like, 40 years ago, but let me tell you, that machine has stood the test of time!”

And that tradition lives on: Seiler's husband is now learning to take shifts at the sewing machine.

Making Due With What’s Available

In areas with widespread outbreaks, DIY mask efforts are increasingly cropping up as communities begin to expect mask shortages. Dr. Asit Goswami is a physician with Methodist Health System in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

And while his hospital hasn’t run out of masks yet, he’s concerned about what would happen if they did.

“We are anxious about it,” he admitted. “We're sending frontline health care workers out to deal with this without a shield to protect themselves. And it's a problem for all of us, because if our frontline health care workers get sick, then who's going to take care of who we need to?”

After reading the CDC’s latest recommendations that providers without protective equipment should use cotton bandanas as a last resort, he also took to social media.

“And so from that, there's been conversations with a number of different crafting groups,” he said.

Seiler’s family members are not the only ones mobilizing to craft masks or mend protective gowns. A constellation of Facebook groups across Nebraska and the country has emerged with thousands of members. One group that came to mind was the Nebraska Million Mask Challenge group, which has organized point people across the state to hand out masks to local workers in need.

Seiler's mother prepared the family well for mask making by teaching them to sew at a young age. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Seiler)

And while DIY masks provide minimal protection compared to a medical grade N-95 mask, Goswami thinks they are not without their merits. He’s seen some promising accounts that they could extend the life of a proper mask, and free up others for higher risk areas and critical personnel who must deal with the public.

“Nursing homes, small doctor's offices, homeless shelters, police officers, firefighters...there's a wide variety of frontline health care and other workers that need access to these masks.”

Seiler is also quick to remind that any homemade mask has serious limitations against a contagion like COVID-19. While it serves an emotional and community benefit to try and protect others, the circumstances are bittersweet.

“It's sobering to think that in this day and age, we're at the point where people are getting their sewing machines out,” she said. “So there's two sides of the coin: it's sobering, and also, it's really cool to see people want to step up and do something for the nation, as little as it is, you know?”
Goswami feels similarly. And without knowing it, he’s adopted a catch phrase similar to Seiler’s family: at this point, anything is better than a bandana.