Comox Valley resident Lauren Lan displays one of her masks that she is sewing for those in need. Facebook photo

Vancouver Islanders step up to mask the response to COVID-19

Amateurs and professionals alike are sewing masks to stave off expected shortages

Lauren Lan admits her sewing skills are limited, but with some time on her hands now that she is staying at home, she wanted to do something helpful and productive for those in need.

The Comox Valley resident is creating homemade masks and is hoping to co-ordinate safe and effective distribution to anyone who made need them during the COVID-19 crisis.

While homemade masks are not considered personal protective equipment, since their capability to protect health care personnel is unknown, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control has suggested their use by health care personnel as a method of last resort.

“Lots of people are navigating this new situation we find ourselves in,” Lan said. “I recognize this isn’t going to save the world, but it gives me purpose.”

RELATED: B.C. health officer says homemade masks may prevent spread of COVID-19 to others

Lan is hardly alone. The pandemic and resulting fears of the system running out protective equipment has inspired a boom in mask-making around the world.

A small clothing company from the Cowichan Valley is focusing all of its production on making face masks for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Salts and West usually manufactures clothing out of fabrics from sustainable sources — everything from sweaters and tunics to pants and dresses — but all of its efforts right now are going into making masks for frontline workers and others to help fend off the coronavirus.

READ MORE: 3M pushes back on Trump administration call to stop sending N95 masks to Canada

As soon as owner Jennifer Graham heard about the mask shortage and realized she could help, she got her company involved.

“I saw that hospitals in the U.S. were making calls for masks,” she explains. “So I assumed that if U.S. hospitals were running out of supplies, Canadian hospitals were running out of supplies.”

RELATED: Sewers stitch masks to free up supplies for front-line health-care workers

Graham started cutting fabric for masks on the weekend, and her 10 seamstresses are hard at work assembling them. She has ordered more fabric from Vancouver so Salts and West can ramp up production.

“We’re hoping that by the end of the week we have 1,000 made,” Graham says.

The masks are made of cotton and poly cotton, as recommended by the BC Centre for Disease Control, with a pocket to insert a surgical mask, such as the much sought-after N95. The fabric masks are reusable and can help the surgical masks last longer. Salts and West is including a piece of bamboo fleece that can be put inside the mask as an additional filter, although Graham advises that a proper surgical mask is better.

The masks alone are not certified medical devices, she emphasizes.

“It’s not ideal,” she says. “But when people are running out and have nothing, it’s better than nothing.”

RELATED: Nanaimo’s Harmac mill works to fill doubled pulp order for medical masks and gowns

Lan, meanwhile, is not a seamstress, but as she is temporarily away from work, wants to keep busy and try and contribute to assisting others as best as she can.

“I know that these masks will not replace (the N95 masks), but I’m just trying to do what I can.”

Not long after creating the initial masks, she posted her creation on a local emergency preparedness Facebook page, with the hopes of reaching out to a seamstress who may suggest a better pattern. Within a few hours, another member of the community who saw Lan’s post reached out with ideas on how to improve the masks, by adding soft wire around the nose to ensure a better fit.

Lori Bradshaw-Bachand, who owns Quillows and More in Merville, has created more than three dozen masks in the past few weeks. With more than 38 years of sewing experience, she knew as soon as she heard that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the need for masks would be great.

“I had a feeling (people) would run out of masks, so I looked at some how-to videos, and I have a large stash of fabric. I wanted to make sure they were made of the appropriate materials, so they’ll all 100 per cent cotton – even the thread – with the exception of the elastic.”

She notes one end of the masks are open in order for charcoal filters to slide in. Currently, she waiting for additional elastics to arrive, but plans to make as many masks as needed.

“Many of the masks I’ve made are for seniors homes or anyone looking for them. I have always thought if you can help people out, that’s always been my goal.”

RELATED: Myth of medical masks drives profiteering in B.C. COVID-19 battle

Salts and West will donate masks where they can, but most will be sold on their website (saltsandwest.com). They are being made available to anyone who wants them, but orders from clinics, police and other emergency personnel will be filled first.

“It’s not like we’re going to a big factory to do it,” Graham says. “We can keep working through this thing. It’s really wonderful that we can do this.”

“Anybody else can order them as well. We should be able to keep up.”

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Jennifer Graham of Salts and West models one of the company’s reusable fabric face masks. (Submitted)

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