Volunteers sew, deliver masks for healthcare professionals throughout state


Zachary Hiser

Healthy Marco.

The West Virginia Mask Army has delivered more than 3,300 free, homemade masks to 14 medical facilities across the state as of April 4, with more orders to be delivered this weekend.

The goal of the newly established nonprofit organization is to deliver masks to healthcare professionals in the state who are lacking in personal protective equipment (PPE), said Hilary Brewster, volunteer and associate professor of English at Marshall University.

“Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown that cotton masks are, while better than literally nothing, are woefully inadequate in a medical setting,” Brewster said.

Members of the organization sew together masks from furnace filters, which are made of the same material as N95 respirator masks worn by medical and healthcare professionals.

“Using filters was sort of the brain baby of Dr. Rose Ayoob, a Marshall graduate and pediatric nephrologist at CAMC, and Patricia Rogers, also a Marshall grad,” Suzanne Strait, biology professor and founder of West Virginia Mask Army, said. “The key to medical masks is that they’re not made of a fabric that is woven, like cotton, which allows in particles. A researcher at WVU has found that our brand in particular works best as a locally available resource, compared to other fabrics or even other brands of filters.”

Strait said the masks also require elastic, and since there has been price gouging, it has been the hardest material to reliably source.

“We’ve had to get creative, even though now we are flush with elastic thanks to a supplier in North Carolina,” she said. “Each mask uses about a foot, six inches per ear, and then about six inches of a wiring mechanism, either pipe cleaners or twist ties, across the nose. We are working on an alternative for that right now, though.”

The organization consists of six hubs with volunteers who sew across the state—all practicing social distancing— and Brewster said more hubs are waiting to be added once the supply chain is more reliable.

To ensure safety of volunteers, hubs work as drop off locations for kits that contain a filter and the amount of elastic and wiring needed at each hub, Strait said. Some filters can produce 20 masks, while others can make up to 30.

“We alert volunteers on social media and our email about material availability, then they call or text their hub manager to say they’re coming and sort of sign out a kit to take home to sew,” Strait said. “When they’re finished, they do the reverse. Everything is done porch-drop style to maintain a safe social distance and cleaned/sanitized at various stages.”

So far, they have raised more than $10,000 on GoFundMe and were awarded a grant of $2,500. Brewster said this has all come about in the course of two weeks, and the organization is only continuing to grow.

“We’re coordinating with the WV National Guard—though it’s been a little complicated doing so—to get filters to the hubs, and we’re currently working on improving the design of the mask so the nose piece is more comfortable,” Brewster said.

English professor Jill Treftz, one of the volunteers in the Huntington hub, lends her skills as a seamstress to make masks. She can make up to ten masks in an hour, though there was a first day learning curve, she said.

“Once you get used to it, the filter material is actually easier to work with than cotton,” Treftz said. “I’m happy to help out, and this movement speaks to Appalachian ingenuity, even though I am horrified and disgusted that in our incredibly wealthy nation this kind of home-based industry is necessary.”

Brewster said the Appalachian spirt of “make do yourself” is in full effect, even though she and Strait are both originally from New York. And while she can’t sew, Brewster said she reached out to help in any other way she could, and she is now the chief financial officer.

“I know Dr. Strait from the Women’s Studies Advisory Board, and we just work amazingly well together,” Brewster said. “I’m on sabbatical, and this feels far more important than revising an article right now.”

Strait said she started the organization because she has former students who work in healthcare, and as a quilter and sewer, she wanted to put her skills to use.

“I cried thinking of how unprepared we are for a viral pandemic like COVID-19,” Strait said. “I (thought) of how to organize a huge mask making effort, on a greater scale than we did for the wildlife impacted by the Australian fires. I talked with a former student, Patricia Rogers, now our COO, and she had an ‘aha’ moment to use furnace filters. We hit the ground running.”

Those interested in sewing, driving or managing hubs may join the organization’s Facebook group: West Virginia Mask Army. Donations are accepted on GoFundMe, PayPal and Venmo. More information can be found at the organization’s website https://sites.google.com/view/wv-mask-army/home.

“Honestly, not doing something—generally speaking, but especially now—seems impossible,” Strait said. “I have the time, the skills and have enlisted a team overseeing operations. I couldn’t not do it.”

Amanda Larch can be contacted at [email protected].