Tompkins County Volunteers Sew Medical Masks To Protect Healthcare Workers

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Volunteer sewers in Tompkins County are making medical masks for frontline healthcare workers. The project is filling a shortage created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These days, to get into the Bartels Hall gym on Cornell University’s* campus you have to wash your hands, answer three questions about your health and recent contacts, and put on a medical face mask then you can enter the gym.

Cayuga Medical Center

Carol O’Driscoll, Sr. Director Perioperative Services, Cayuga Medical Center. The mask sewing project was her idea. (Provided: Cayuga Medical Center)

Inside the gym volunteers are working eight feet apart. Some are sewing while others cut fabric for ties and metal wire to fit the single-use mask against someone’s nose.

The project was the idea of Carol O’Driscoll, Senior Nursing Director for Surgical Services at Cayuga Medical Center*. It’s the only hospital in Tompkins County.

O’Driscoll said the masks are made from a specific material – a sterile sheeting usually used to cover surgical equipment in operating rooms.

“It is a double-woven, thermal heat-sealed wrap,” she said. “And so the beauty of this – so it mimics a surgical mask is because of the heat sealing it is two layers and that’s the important piece to our surgical masks that we have density in the material for filtration.”

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio

Part of a mask made from surgical wrap material. (Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio)

O’Driscoll said that difference in the material is important because of who will be using the masks.

“The major difference here is we have to protect the frontline staff from the microbes that they are going to encounter,” she said. “And so the microns, which is the measurement of density on our masks being produced here cannot be matched with cloth.

O’Driscoll said they are accepting donations of homemade cloth masks. They are sterilized and then made available for free to anyone in the community who wants a face mask. They will not be used by medical staff at the hospital.

At Bartels Hall, O’Driscoll said production is ramping. On the first day they made 350 masks. A week later they made 1,600 in a single day. She said, soon they will be making over 2,000 a day.

Last week, Cayuga Health began a second mask project in Montour Falls.

*Full disclosure: Cayuga Medical Center and Cornell University are WSKG Underwriters.