As the coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf the United States, a national shortage of N95 masks and depleting stock of loose-fitting surgical masks has induced a creative solution: do-it-yourself versions.
Some of the millions of Americans who remain relegated to their homes due to shelter-in-place orders are using that time to sew and assemble masks out of spare and recycled fabric, elastic and other materials.
Experts advise, however, that while the homemade alternatives can create a loose-fitting barrier that may mitigate the spread of some germs, they are not designed to block the spread of COVID-19, the official name of the pandemic that has swept the globe.
“The only mask that the CDC considers safe from you getting the coronavirus, the only way to actually prevent you from inhaling it, is the N95 mask,” Captain Michael Doyle, a U.S. Army New York National Guard physician assistant, told USA TODAY. Doyle is the commanding officer at the drive-in coronavirus testing site in New Rochelle, New York.
“The DIY masks, albeit creative, are only to serve as a reminder for us to not touch our face," Doyle said. "The virus can travel up to six feet if you cough, sneeze, vape, second-hand vape. Although, when you are out in public, you do not necessarily need the mask, unless you yourself are sick. And if you are sick, it is advised that you do not go out in public.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best way to prevent illness is by avoiding exposure to the virus. It advises, above all else, for people to avoid person-to-person contact and practice social distancing, avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth, cover coughs and sneezes with tissue or the inside of the elbow, and to frequently and thoroughly wash hands for at least 20 seconds.
Coronavirus questions: We're answering them.
N95 masks are tight-fitting masks that filter out at least 95% of small and large airborne particles, according to the CDC. They are recommended for use by health care workers in the treatment of the coronavirus. The FDA added, however, that even when properly fitted, an N95 mask “does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.”
Homemade masks many are sewing, rather, resemble loose-fitting surgical masks, also known as facemasks, that do not meet the N95 standards.
“The role of facemasks is for patient source control, to prevent contamination of the surrounding area when a person coughs or sneezes,” the CDC said on its website. “Patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should wear a facemask until they are isolated in a hospital or at home. The patient does not need to wear a facemask while isolated.”
The CDC further advises that individuals who are not sick do not need to wear a facemask unless caring for someone who is ill.
"Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers," the website reads.
Coronavirus updates: 100M in lockdown; Trump wavers on social distancing; stimulus battle rages
Facemasks, including N95 masks, are becoming scarcer, subject to increasing demand and even facing price gouging as local officials seek to bolster their stockpile through the private sector. In response, several companies are undertaking initiatives to replenish medical supplies at hospitals across the country.
JOANN fabrics launched a program Friday that gives away free fabric, elastic and other essential materials so that customers can make facemasks at home to donate to hospitals. The company even has a video tutorial on its website that shows the proper methods to assemble the masks.
In Arizona, a nonprofit in Flagstaff, Threaded Together, is using surgical fabric recycled by the Flagstaff Medical Center to sew masks. A Gilbert small business, My Little Homemade Shop, started sewing masks and giving them away for free after local health care workers reported not being provided masks because they were not considered “at-risk,” and after the owner of the shop heard that doctors in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Staff were wearing bandanas instead.
Meanwhile, a number of companies and retailers have shifted their operation to help manufacture masks. The clothing company Hanes, for example, is retrofitting its factories to produce masks, though the company will not have the capabilities for them to meet N95 standards.
“The masks we are making use 3-ply cotton fabric and are reusable and washable,” HanesBrands chief communications officer Matt Hall wrote in an email to USA TODAY. “They are designed to be used when N-95 respirator masks or formal surgical masks are not required or are not available.”
Fashion designer Christian Siriano, Los Angeles Apparel founder and former head of American Apparel Dov Charney and swimsuit designer Karla Colletto have also committed to producing personal protective equipment for medical staff.
Mask shortage: How FEMA, businesses and Donald Trump are confronting the nation's N95 mask shortage
The Federal Emergency Management Agency does have a strategic reserve of N95 masks and has begun distributing them to states in need, but many local hospitals fear that stockpiles will soon be entirely depleted.
Many health care workers are being forced to ration their N95 masks and some who don’t have access to N95 masks are resorting to surgical masks, otherwise known as facemasks. Yet, the CDC advises against health care professionals using these masks when treating coronavirus patients.
The FDA does not have specifications for homemade masks, but the DIY masks many in the country are crafting are most like the loose-fitting surgical masks.
The FDA states that when properly worn, surgical masks are “meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose.”
The FDA added, however, that a surgical mask “by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures.”