Marco Islanders are using their sewing talents to make a dent in the critical shortage of surgical face masks for those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Wendy Morell is leading a team of more than 70 people performing the same task to protect staff at Collier County’s five hospitals.
Morell’s effort began on March 23rd as a two-person operation consisting of herself and her sister-in-law and fellow sewing enthusiast, Michelle “Mitch” Frye, co-owner of Downing-Frye Realty, where Morell is a realtor. It quickly began to grow exponentially and by the end of the first week of April, thanks to the participation of Marco Canvas and Upholstery, the group had produced about 1,200 masks for use at Naples Community Hospital’s three hospitals and Physicians Regional Healthcare System’s two locations.
The fabric and everything needed to construct the 100% cotton masks are found in bags that Morell leaves by the front door of her Aztec Court home. The volunteer sewers can simply pick-up the needed materials there and drop off the finished products too. She has been footing the bill for the materials, assisted by contributions from the Marco Patriots, and donations of fabric from community members, the Bargain Basket Thrift Shop on Marco, and Better Homes and Bargains in Naples.
“We’re just trying to help wherever we can, and the ladies in the community have been just so gracious with their time and their beautiful sewing skills,” said Morell. “It brought me to tears to see how much of an effort they’re putting into helping these front-line medical workers. It’s really tremendous that we, as Americans who aren’t essential employees, can to this little thing to help. I think what we do as Americans is we pull together. I never knew I would be doing this a month ago. None of us expected this to happen, but this is what I can do to help my community in a small little way, then this is what I’m meant to do.”
A posting on the Collier Community Support Facebook page about a need at NCH for homemade surgical masks inspired her to get involved and to enlist Frye.
“I’m a realtor by trade and it’s kind of a slow time right now,” explained Morell. “My sister-in-law is also a good sewer. She sews all sorts of nice purses and things, so I sent her a text and I said, ‘I think we need to start doing this.’”
The next day, she saw her contact in the Marco Patriots asking the group to issue an all-points bulletin for sewers.
“I reached out to the Marco Patriots and said, ‘I’ve just started doing this so let me share the pattern I’ve been using on your Facebook page and if anybody has questions, please call me,’” said Morell. “Before you knew it, I had 5 sewers, then a couple days later I had 10 sewers, then I had 20 and it’s grown to where I have over 50 ladies sewing for me right now. It’s tremendous.”
Morell said the masks she makes aren’t medical-grade, but the hospitals are using them to extend the life of the N-95 masks the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for protection against the coronavirus infection. The cotton masks are placed over the top of their N-95 counterparts.
“It’s meant for double protection,” she added. “It’s not 100% but any protection is better than no protection.”
To ready the masks for use, they’re ironed and then placed in individual plastic bags, which are then grouped together in a larger plastic bag for shipment to the hospitals, where each cotton mask is used just one time.
Social distancing is practiced, with fabric cutting, sewing, ironing and the other tasks taking place at volunteers’ homes.
Morell has also been providing masks to private citizens who all have underlying health issues that leave them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Morell said Marco Canvas owner Ed Skrzynski recently volunteered his company to become involved with the effort, the company’s 3-D photogrammetry machine, which uses photography to measure distances, is being used to measure and cut fabric, dramatically speeding up the mask-making process.
“He helped us cut over 3,000 pieces of fabric,” she said of Skrzynski. “The machine cuts each piece to the exact size needed. It comes out perfectly.”
She said the contributions of Skrzynski and his sister Susie, who’s been handling the fabric cutting, have been huge.
“We could never have gotten all of this done if we were hand-cutting, because it’s very time consuming,” observed Morell. “Because it’s a canvas company and he has a crew of sewers, he asked if he could volunteer his staff to work on making masks so that he could keep them employed during the coronavirus-caused business downturn.”
Contact Wendymorellsells@gmail.com if you’d like to volunteer to sew, iron, make deliveries or pick-ups. They’re also accepting donations of 100% cotton fabric. Monetary donations can also be made through marcopatriots.org.