Santa Clara County needs medical masks to fight COVID-19. This group is hand-making them.
Navpreet Kaur and her son have already helped sew hundreds of homemade fabric masks to help alleviate the shortage caused by the coronavirus crisis. Photo courtesy of Harbir Kaur Bhatia.

    Donations have poured in for masks and other protective gear for Santa Clara County doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus in one of the country’s most highly-infected areas – but it’s still not enough. The dire shortage continues.

    So one group got creative and started making those much-needed masks.

    “(Mask shortages) are a problem I keep hearing about, but why aren’t we helping people solve that problem?” said Harbir Kaur Bhatia, who organized an effort to make masks. “Working together lets these things spread – that’s the power of multiplication to create positive outcomes.”

    Bhatia, a longtime Santa Claran, harnessed her extensive volunteer network, engineering skills and Sikh tradition of community service to create a 230-member (and counting) Facebook page in a week, which has already created more than 500 masks.

    These masks can’t be slung together any which way. Part of what takes time is the list of requirements Valley Medical Health Center has deemed necessary for homemade masks to be effective, which includes using cotton or blend fabric, adding elastic ties and pleating.

    Valley Medical Center has listed these instructions for homemade masks they will accept.

    So while people are busy sewing, Bhatia, who is the head of developer SiliconSage’s Community Benefit and Innovation department, said community partnerships have been essential to get to this point: Maharani Fashion in Alum Rock has contributed fabric at cost and GoSikhs owner Guri Singh has donated his turbans, which result in dozens of meters of fabric.

    Community members Neetu Dhaliwal, Navpreet Kaur and Sheena Sawhney are also helping facilitate the overwhelming influx of volunteer questions and outreach.

    “I really believe we don’t need to be a professional ‘anything’ to be able to solve common problems,” Bhatia said. “Everybody has a skill to apply here. It takes a team and not just one person. We really can work together to solve the larger problems by stepping up and not being afraid to fail, especially in Silicon Valley.”

    County doctors, nurses and medical staff last week pled for masks, hand sanitizer, face shields and other protective gear as they treat nearly 500 patients who’ve already tested positive for the contagious virus, and hundreds of thousands more who could contract it. A fund for the Valley Medical Center, set up by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, has brought in more than $4 million in donations for life-saving supplies.

    But community leaders want to do more.

    “I can’t sew, but I can do the deliveries. I’m just one of these little cogs in this pipeline,” said Leann Griffin, who is now retired and has helped the group distribute supplies. “This is really important to get into all the hospitals and nursing homes. The need outweighs my slight risk.”

    Driving across the county for pick-ups of fabric, materials and completed masks multiple days a week, the lifelong San Jose resident said creating the masks is a tangible, accessible and creative way to help, especially during California’s shelter-in-place order.

    “San Jose is the biggest small town,” Griffin said. “When it comes down to community needs and community help, people step up.”

    The community has stepped up so much that she’s already delivered masks to a range of destinations, including multiple senior homes, Deaconess Community Clinic in San Jose and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

    Michael Elliott, chief operating officer for the Valley Medical Center Foundation, said he’s floored by the sheer scale of responses and support they’ve received.

    Their office now looks like a Costco warehouse with boxes piling up.

    “We’ve got what feels like a million people making hand-sewn masks for us, and the first batch of DIY face shields is coming in on Friday,” said Elliott, adding that his group has made a webpage dedicated to information about compliant masks. “The response has been overwhelming.”

    Community networks, plastic fabrication companies and folks with 3D printers have started prototyping full face shields, too.

    And on Tuesday, the San Jose Police Department donated 48,000 N95 masks to five San Jose hospitals.

    “My ultimate decision to assist our areas hospitals was a no-brainer,” said Chief Eddie Garcia. “The credit needs to go to Anna Hawkes, police property supervisor, who during an inventory of our equipment realized we had a surplus. It amazes me how, as were going through this crisis, people are mindful of the little things, that have enormous impact. Decisions are easy when you have amazing people working for this department.”

    SJPD donates 48,000 N95 masks to local hospitals

    Today SJPD delivered approximately 48,000 masks to our fellow first responders at all five San Jose hospitals.“My ultimate decision to assist our areas hospitals was a no-brainer. The credit needs to go to Anna Hawkes, police property supervisor, who during an inventory of our equipment realized we had a surplus. It amazes me how, as were going through this crisis, people are mindful of the little things, that have enormous impact. Decisions are easy when you have amazing people working for this Department.” – Chief Garcia

    Posted by San Jose Police Department on Wednesday, March 25, 2020


    A growing need

    Medical officials are asking for a list of standard medical necessities, including N95 masks, testing swabs and gloves, each of which they’ve already received thousands.

    Despite hand-sewn masks’ inability to completely protect individuals from the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed homemade face masks as a last-resort alternative during the COVID-19 shortage, if sterilized.

    Elliott said the handmade masks are critically helping support Valley Medical Center’s 8,000-person staff.

    “Our goal is focused around protecting the entire continuum of the health care workforce,” he said. “Some masks aren’t appropriate for frontline staff in an emergency department or an inpatient unit, but we also need the people delivering food and laundry to be safe also.”

    If Santa Clara County residents don’t have professional masks to donate or time to sew their own, Elliott said making a donation is the best way to get supplies to health care workers.

    “One of the most helpful things in any disaster always is to donate money,” he said.

    While cases ramp up and supplies are depleted, Elliott said health care workers will accept any and everything they safely can.

    “We’re trying to do everything we can until things get a lot more serious, which is the expectation,” Elliott said. “I think people understand that this is an incredibly serious situation and that our health care workers are going to put themselves on the line for all of us.”

    How you can help

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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