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Manufactured masks are desperately needed by hospitals, so here's how to make your own
Last week, The Capital wrote about why, given the evidence, universal face masking is an easy and effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19. In the days since, several health authorities who were previously anti-masking have now changed their tune, including the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Health Canada. Just across the Rockies, meanwhile, Alberta recently announced a plan to adopt widespread public masking as provincial policy.
There is still the problem of supply, however. Canada is facing a critical shortage of medical-grade masks that are desperately needed by healthcare workers, and The Capital encourages anybody with access to unopened masks to donate them to the cause. But we also know that among The Capital’s readership is a standing army of veteran seamsters and seamstresses, all of them idled by quarantine and eager to help the fight against COVID-19. We reviewed the best available data on how to make effective COVID-19 masks and compiled the results below.
The reason we’re all self-isolating, of course, is because any one of us could be infected with COVID-19 right now and not know it. Universal testing of a coronavirus-affected population has been rare, but in the cases where it’s occurred (in Iceland and onboard the Grand Princess cruise ship), it’s shown that upwards of half of all COVID-19 cases don’t show symptoms.
So we all have to act as if every breath out of our mouths is a potentially deadly vector for disease. As a result, anything you put in front of that mouth necessarily risks becoming absolutely saturated with coronaviruses.
The first rule of masking is to avoid wearing it if you don’t have to. If you’re at home or paddleboarding or on a remote hike, your mask is best left off your face. The second rule is to be very wary of touching that mask. Public Health Ontario has these guidelines on how to properly don and doff a mask, and the gist is that you should be thoroughly washing your hands before and after putting it on. Just remember that your mask, while helpful at protecting you and your community, is also a viral sponge, so treat it with the respect you would accord to any object potentially dripping with infectious disease.
Generally, when a pandemic is on, something over your mouth is better than nothing over your mouth. An impromptu face covering is an imperfect seal over your mouth that will still allow plenty of virus-saturated air to escape, but what you’re doing is limiting the size of the virus cloud around you. As the video below shows, the mere act of putting a barrier in front of your face dramatically limits your ability to spew water droplets into the surrounding environment.
Although two meters is recommended as the minimum social distance to prevent transmission of the virus, it’s nowhere near enough space if someone is coughing, sneezing, yelling or just happens to be a particularly spitty talker. What an impromptu face covering does is help contain a person’s viral expectorations within their two meter bubble.
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Anything fabric over your mouth is good: A bandana, a scarf, a reconfigured bra. In the video below, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams demonstrates how to make a purpose-built face mask in less than a minute using only an old t-shirt and two rubber bands.
This extremely simple improvised design has already been endorsed by health authorities around the world. Here, for instance, is the Israeli Health Ministry promoting the same mask design in Yiddish.
You can also get a tighter, more comfortable fit by assembling a mask from a square of cloth, a paper towel, a length of string and a few staples to hold it all together. The Capital contributor Meaghie Champion posted the video below outlining the process.
The Centres for Disease Control has published instructions for another "no sew" mask that involves little more than a t-shirt, a pair of scissors and about five minutes.
Even when this pandemic is over, being able to MacGyver a mask is a pretty good skill to have. From escaping a burning building to camping in mosquito country to changing a diaper, there are plenty of reasons to cover your mouth and nose on the fly.
Deaconess, a small Indiana health system, was one of the first US agencies to enthusiastically embrace public masking. As a result, their website on how to manufacture simple washable masks was soon widely circulated among pro-masking internet forums. The design closely mirrors that of masks that would have historically been seen in hospital settings; before the advent of high-end disposable paper masks like the N95, everyone from nurses to surgeons donned washable cotton masks. It’s also basically the easiest sewing project in existence: Take one square and two thin strips of fabric, fold some pleats and then sew it all together.
The Good Housekeeping Institute also tackled the issue of proper mask manufacture. They recommended tightly woven, 100% cotton fabric, and sewing a piece of metal, such as a paper clip, into the top seam in order to bend the mask around the wearer’s nose. They even included a pattern from fashion designer Amanda Perna, who has been spending her self-isolation feverishly sewing as many of the things as possible.
The Washington Post recently published a downloadable pattern of a mask designed by New York City fashion professor Grace Jun. Intended to be as accessible as possible, it’s also slightly contoured in order to match the curves of the human face and thus provide a tighter seal. Although the pattern works best with a sewing machine, it could conceivably be cobbled together with an old shirt, the waistband from a worn out pair of underwear and a hotel room sewing kit.
For the sartorially inclined, COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accessorize on a part of the body that is normally left exposed, particularly in the balmy year-round conditions of Vancouver Island. Naturally, with so many fashion designers around the world suddenly quarantined at home, we are currently in the midst of a golden age for designer face coverings.
There’s masks coordinated with a summer ensemble. There’s a face mask with a window so you can still communicate with the hearing impaired. There’s masks accented with designer ribbons. And below, artist Darryl Bolton has rolled out this very West Coast design.
As The Capital has covered before, one of the benefits of public masking is the psychological effect on the surrounding community: When people see sidewalks and buses filled with people in masks, it’s a subtle reminder to be vigilant about viral hygiene. Similarly, if you can sport a jazzed-up design that elevates the mask from a mere public health chore, society will be all the better for it.