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Steampunks: Time to Get Sewing!
Demand for homemade face masks is growing as the CDC reconsiders its advice on public use
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
As COVID-19 continues to spread, steampunk makers and cosplayers have been applying their skills to fabricate face masks for hospitals and other facilities dealing with supply shortages. Now the push for homemade face masks is likely to grow as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reconsiders its advice on use of masks by the general public.
The CDC currently advises that among the general public, face masks should be worn only by people who are sick or caring for others. On March 28, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams reiterated this advice on Twitter, citing “scant or conflicting evidence they benefit individual wearers in a meaningful way, but real concerns about pulling from the healthcare worker supply.”
Now Adams—as well as other government health officials—say they are revisiting this stance. “We’ve learned there’s a fair amount of asymptomatic spread,” he said in an April 1 interview with Good Morning America, referring to people who carry the virus and can infect others without showing symptoms. “And so we’ve asked the CDC to take another look at whether or not having more people wear masks will prevent transmission of the disease to other people.”
This comes as many people have taken it on themselves to wear face masks, at least in some parts of the U.S. I can attest to this in the San Francisco area, where all counties have been under shelter-in-place orders since the middle of March. The orders ban public and private gatherings, but allow people to go outside for walks, grocery shopping, and other essential activities. Many (if not most) people going out these days are wearing masks.
Is it backed by research?
In a commentary for The Washington Post, University of San Francisco data scientist Jeremy Howard contended that the government’s advice against public use of face masks is “senseless and unscientific.” Instead, “we should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public,” he wrote.
Howard cited 34 scientific papers “indicating basic masks can be effective in reducing virus transmission in public — and not a single paper that shows clear evidence that they cannot.”
In an article for Forbes, medical journalist Tara Haelle takes a more skeptical view, based on her reading of peer-reviewed research. “Quite possibly, yes, universal mask wearing might decrease asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of the disease,” she writes. “The evidence isn’t strong, solid, or crystal clear (it rarely is), but it might be better to err on the side of trying it.”
Howard’s commentary suggested that broad public use of face masks in Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea, and Taiwan helped bring the outbreak “largely under control” in those places.
But Haelle cautions that assertions like this demonstrate “the fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation.” She notes that the countries with “low case numbers instituted very intense, widespread testing, contact tracing and quarantining— strongly evidence-based strategies for containing an outbreak—and they did so immediately after the first case was identified.”
Lots of designs
The push for homemade masks has led to a proliferation of online guides and videos for making them. Some are from hospitals and health systems that sought local volunteers to fabricate masks, including Deaconness Health System in Evansville, Indiana; Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville; and UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Each of these institutions recommends using cotton fabric. A 2013 study by researchers at Cambridge University in the UK evaluated nine household materials and found that cotton T-shirts and pillowcases were best suited for homemade masks due to their combination of breathability and effectiveness in blocking particles.
The researchers noted that these materials were not as effective as the material used in surgical masks, but the cotton T-shirts blocked 69 percent of bacteria and 51 percent of viruses while being highly breathable. (The Smart Air blog has a plain-English summary of the research.)
Even medical-grade surgical masks are not as protective as N95 respirator masks, which are designed to block at least 95 percent of particles measuring 0.3 microns or more.
Issues with cotton
One concern about cotton is that it absorbs moisture, which can make it a breeding ground for bacteria. Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told The Washington Post that fabric masks should be washed frequently and that people should have multiple masks so they can keep clean ones on hand.
The MakerMask project has developed DIY face mask designs made from non-woven polypropylene, a material found in reusable shopping and conference bags. “We believe our designs offer a substantial step beyond cotton alternatives and are pursuing rigorous testing to provide data on particle filtration efficiency, fluid penetration resistance, and breathing resistance,” they wrote on the website. They have a three-layer design for a standalone mask and a single-layer design for covering N95 respirators. The effort is led by Jocelyn Songer, a biomedical engineer in Boston.
Key City Maker Challenge
What about face masks that incorporate a steampunk look? On Tuesday, Wheeler Stone of the Key City Steampunk Festival announced a Maker Challenge to promote awareness of face masks.
“We are offering an all-inclusive weekend pass for two, to the person who comes up with the best filter mask or respirator,” he said in a video announcing the challenge. Later, he told us that entries will be judged on functionality and aesthetics.
“The goal really is to normalize mask wearing in public, which ironically is a steampunk aesthetic,” he said.
The judges will include Stone as well as Brian Fadrosh, Tobias McCurry, Thomas Willeford, and “other special guests at Key City to be determined,” he said.
Once you build your face mask, you can enter it in the challenge by posting a video in the comments section. The festival is scheduled for Aug. 14-16 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. See the Facebook page for more details.
In New Zealand, artist Terri Bracey created a steampunk dragon mask that fits over a respirator.
Face masks in hospitals
The initial push for homemade face masks came largely from hospitals, but the use of DIY masks in these settings remains controversial. The CDC advises their use only as a last resort when manufactured surgical masks are not available. The American Nurses Association stated that nurses treating COVID patients should not be using fabric masks.
In many cases, the hospitals requesting homemade face masks have said they won’t be used by doctors or nurses caring for COVID-19 patients. “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not suggest cloth material as a first-line defense against the coronavirus causing COVID-19, cloth masks work well for other conditions and can help conserve precious reserves of N-95 respirator masks,” state the instructions from Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The Stillwater Medical Center in Stillwater, Oklahoma says it wants homemade face masks for non-clinical workers and “worried well” patients, so it can free up other protective gear for healthcare workers.
Other requests for DIY masks are coming from hospices, senior-care facilities, homeless shelters, dental clinics, and home healthcare providers.
Which DIY mask pattern should you use? Even experts can’t pick one to recommend. (The Washington Post)
Addressing COVID-19 Face Mask Shortages (Stanford Medicine)
How to make a Face Mask (Deaconness Health System)
Organizations Needing Mask Donations (Deaconness Health System)
Make a Mask (MakerMask)
We Need Masks (WeNeedMasks.org)
Instructions to Sew a Mask (WeNeedMasks.org)
Video: Community Face Mask Instructions (Providence St. Joseph Health)
Instructions for Homemade Face Mask (Vanderbilt University Medical Center)
Sewing Fabric Face Masks (UnityPoint Health)
COVID-19 ATX Exchange (Dell Medical School, University of Texas)
Video: How to Make a Cloth Face Mask (Kaiser Permanente)
Also see our previous story, “Steampunking Surgical Masks”.
See all of our coronavirus coverage, plus useful resources, in our COVID-19 News Hub.
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