Sonoma County volunteers sew surgical masks for nurses

Laura Miera-Verniers made a beeline to the Jo-Ann fabric store in Santa Rosa when she learned Sonoma County nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak were running so low on respirator masks they may soon be forced to consider wearing bandanas and scarves to protect themselves.

Using cotton cloth, elastic and other materials she bought at the store, Miera-Verniers began sewing homemade masks to deliver to local health care workers facing a shortage of ?protective medical gear.

“My daughter is in the health care industry and needs masks,” Miera-?Verniers said. “She said, ‘Mom, these poor nurses are running out. There’s going to be nothing left.’?”

Miera-Verniers, a retired executive at outdoor clothing company Marmot, is one of hundreds of Sonoma County seamstresses plying their craft to make cloth masks for local hospitals and health care workers expecting a surge of coronavirus patients in coming weeks. She is part of a newly formed online Facebook group, North Bay Sewists Unite!, made up of over 450 local crafters and volunteers hunkered down at home, diligently cutting patterns and sewing masks.

In addition to the 50 masks she has promised to friends and family, Miera-Verniers has enlisted the help of her grandchildren to make hundreds of masks that will be picked up and distributed to area nurses by the group’s organizers.

“It’s like women rolling bandages for the war,” she said. “This is a war. I think it’s a women’s intuition to care for and nurture, and don’t get in between us and our family because we are fierce.”

It’s not just women who are joining the fight. Natalie Hoytt, one of the founders of North Bay Sewists Unite!, said scores of men, women and children of all ages and sewing ability have reached out to help since she and three other members of a local online moms’ group started the effort last week.

“It grew so fast overnight. I’m still in shock,” Hoytt said. “Our goal is to make sure these masks go directly into the hands of nurses and our fellow moms in the community are getting them.”

As the coranavirus pandemic has intensified in Sonoma County, some local nurses and health care workers have expressed fear the shortage of respirator masks and protective clothing could put them at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. Local residents and employers - including Exchange Bank, Ghilotti Construction and Santa Rosa Junior College - have heeded calls for donations, together giving thousands of professional-grade masks to hospitals.

But in the event of a severe shortage of N95 medical masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance that health care workers should use improvised cloth masks or bandanas when treating patients.

Wendy Young, executive director of the Sonoma County Medical Association, is helping the volunteer group coordinate with administrators at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Petaluma Valley Hospital and Northern California Medical Associates medical offices across the North Bay, among others. She expects the volunteers, who plan to make their first deliveries of a few hundred homemade masks Tuesday, to be producing thousands by the end of this week.

“This group is really galvanizing and getting ahead of the curve now, which is going to help us in two weeks when the need is really at its peak,” Young said.

Young stressed the homemade masks should only be used as last resort. “If you don’t have access to N95 masks, this is better than nothing, and this is better than a bandana,” she said.

While not every hospital may accept homemade protective gear, volunteers will only distribute to health care providers that request masks.

Julian Rogers, marketing director at Northern California Medical Associates, which operates about 20 ?locations, welcomes the help.

“Every single one of our facilities is still open, and we’re hoping to get masks, in addition to gowns and gloves,” he said.

To produce the masks, group organizers have provided volunteers with specific sewing instructions. Volunteers are also offered cloth and materials or can use bedsheets or other durable fabric from home.

They have been instructed to wash materials before and after assembling masks and then place them immediately into sanitized bags. Organizers then pick up the bags at volunteers’ homes or at sites throughout the county.

Quinn Roncarati, a co-owner of Santa Rosa apparel brand Dreamland Studios and one of the group’s founders, said about 20 nurses have already reached out asking for masks. Since her business temporarily shut down last week under Sonoma County’s stay-at-home order, she’s been working overtime to coordinate requests and drop off materials.

“I saw people on their porch with tears in their eyes,” Roncarati said. “People are stuck in their home and are looking for whatever they can do to help.”

Roncarati said the group has received plenty of donations of fabric and elastic and is looking to add as many volunteers as possible. The group has even prompted a similar effort based out of the East Bay.

“A lot of people are inspired by the momentum we have now,” she said. “Hopefully they can use our model.”

Anyone interested in more information about volunteering or donating is encouraged to visit North Bay Sewers Unite! on Facebook or call Wendy Young with the Sonoma County Health Association at 707-620-0808.

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