SALINAS VALLEY — The spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused an increased need for masks, from medical-grade to simply covering one’s face, all with the intent of reducing the rate of infection at a community and worldwide level.
This has caused a shortage of higher-end masks like N95 models, which protect the user. However, as the public has learned of a need to cover one’s face to reduce potential spread even by asymptomatic carriers, community members have begun to make masks themselves.
“Anything at this point is recommended in place of nothing,” said Cassie Russo, director of clinic operations at Soledad Medical Clinic. “That includes reusing items, such as washable cloth masks. It is not ideal, but it is indicated in place of no protection.”
While typical N95 masks are disposable to reduce chances of infection, the sheer volume of required masks has caused reusable ones to be considered.
Russo said medical professionals have looked into the idea of baking masks, exposing them to UV light or even using time to kill off harmful particles and thus make the otherwise disposable masks reusable. But a growing solution is fabric masks, being sought by people in high-risk jobs.
Many people with sewing skills across the county have taken to making masks, coordinating on Facebook and through such sites as Masks for Monterey County (masksformontereycounty.org).
One such community member is Ama Avelino of Soledad, who has begun making masks for the elderly. She recently ran into the hurdle of needing more elastic bands to continue making masks, with Facebook support groups able to boost her signal.
Another Soledad resident, Crystal Valdez Juarez, has also started making masks and said she has had tremendous demand for them. She has already made more than 75 masks as of April 4.
“I’ve been trying to stay focused on making, it gets hard keeping up with all the messages coming in,” said Jaurez, who added her reason for making masks was she “just really wanted to help in some way.”
Another solution to make reusable masks is being worked on by a place known more for books, the Monterey County Free Libraries. The library system owns two 3D printers, typically used for its library programs in Soledad and Greenfield to teach kids about technology, science and art.
The libraries moved their 3D printers to the county logistics warehouse and have begun making plastic masks that have a slot to fit disposable breathing filters. They are also making plastic versions of N95 masks, which can be reused. A third project being printed is doorknob covers for high-traffic areas.
“Our team did a lot of homework and that’s the design that most of the other libraries doing 3D printing are landing on,” said Hillary Theyer, the county’s library director. “You have to have a compromise for a design that works for a wide variety of uses, with materials on hand, and print in a reasonable amount of time.”
While some more secure designs are out there, Theyer said they could take seven hours to print. The design printed by the county libraries is a safe design and takes less time to print, she explained. These faster masks, however, still require three hours and 15 minutes to print each one.
“I think that at a time like this, everybody and every agency has tools that we may not have purchased for this reason,” Theyer said. “They’re still tools that can be used in this situation.”
The library system is not experienced in emergency responses, which means teamwork is needed with other agencies.
“We are not the experts in the situation,” Theyer said. “We’re coordinating with emergency operations to figure out the best use of these masks. Printing is not a fast operation, so we’re happy to take names and needs in the county and coordinate.”
Library staff needs to operate the machines, not only for design and logistics, but also to watch the machines, reload filament and finish the masks when they’re done being printed. This takes place while the county’s libraries remain closed during the shelter-in-place orders.
Theyer called the library’s mask production a good example of how agencies can work together. As the mask-making continues, the process shows how community members can work together to attempt to solve a problem, she said.