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Working alone, together: Hundreds take to their sewing machines to make masks for health care workers

  • Rachel McDevitt/StateImpact Pennsylvania
Volunteer members of the Stitchers Corp of Central Pennsylvania are making masks like these to give to health care workers.

 Courtesy Stitchers Corp of Central Pennsylvania

Volunteer members of the Stitchers Corp of Central Pennsylvania are making masks like these to give to health care workers.

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(Hampden Township) — Amanda Campbell got a sewing machine for Christmas, but she hadn’t used it until recently, when she saw a post on the app Nextdoor. A neighbor who was making fabric face masks for health care workers was asking for volunteers.

“I wanted to help because it was my way of kind of finding control in a scenario that no one’s been prepared for,” Campbell said.

Now Campbell is making the group, dubbed “Operation Face Mask,” her job.

She’s taken on an organizer role, answering emails and setting up a GoFundMe campaign to help the group purchase supplies. Operation Face Mask has grown to include 15 Cumberland County neighbors, all working on their own.

As a first-time sewer, Campbell said learning how to make the masks took a lot of trial and error.

Amanda Campbell

Home mask-makers are using whatever cotton fabric they have available to make face coverings for health care workers.

“There was a lot of frustration and some choice language I probably shouldn’t say in front of the 3-month-old,” she said, but added she feels motivated by her son and by the doctors and nurses in her family.

“I know they’re literally putting their lives at risk, and they have small children,” she said, “and here I am just sitting in my house. So, at least I felt like I am doing something for somebody else.”

Now she can make one mask an hour.

The group’s volunteers are making covers that they hope will extend the life of health care workers’ N95 masks. They’re also making cloth versions of surgical masks.

Together, they have made a few hundred masks so far but are working to fill requests from health care workers for 3,000.

Operation Face Mask is one example of the ad-hoc armies rising up around the midstate to make protective gear for front-line health care workers.

Separated by necessity, amateurs and professionals alike are united in a mission to stitch masks, hats and gowns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear a homemade face covering in public places that might get crowded, like grocery stores.

Though it says health care providers should only use homemade masks as a last resort to care for patients with COVID-19, supplies are short, and workers desperate for at least some level of protection are reaching out for the cloth masks.

Spurred by the shortage, Sean Quinlan created the Stitchers Corp of Central Pennsylvania on Facebook.

“What do we have to lose?” he said. “We have to do something. We can’t sit here and send people into the OR, the ER, the ICU with bandannas wrapped around their face with a deadly pandemic virus.”

The Camp Hill attorney and Democratic candidate for a state House seat doesn’t sew himself, but said he saw an opportunity to put his persuasive skills to good use rallying people for a cause.

Quinlan said 106 volunteers signed up in the three days after he put out a call to action. The group now has hundreds of members. He said health care providers are asking for a number of masks, and whoever can meet the demand will respond. Others offer up spare material, elastic and even sewing machines. People arrange contact-less pickups for the masks or drop them off at one of three designated sites, one of which is Quinlan’s front porch.

“All kind of people come up my sidewalk, some are walking their dogs,” he said. “I don’t know who these people are. They drop off a certain number of masks and then they keep walking.”

Quinlan said he didn’t know the group would take off like this.

“I certainly didn’t know the skill level of my fellow men and women in central Pennsylvania,” he said. “These people are incredible. They’re churning out masks at extremely high quality and an extremely high rate.”

He said the Stitchers Corp has made 4,000 masks and counting.

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