Hurricanes and floods created the Cajun Navy. The coronavirus pandemic may have begun the Face Mask Army.

This force has no generals or discernible chain of command. But in the war on coronavirus, volunteers handy with needle and thread are churning out masks by the thousands for medical facilities in need. Friends and strangers are linking up through churches and social media.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Beverly Hammond, who started one mask-making network. “It’s like an octopus with tentacles that just keeps going. But it keeps me busy since I’m not supposed to have contact.”

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The grassroots effort sprang forth after reports coronavirus cases were forcing hospitals and clinics to go through face masks faster than they could be resupplied. Because the virus can spread through respiratory droplets when people cough or sneeze, masks are an important line of defense, particularly when people can’t keep the recommended 6-foot distance from each other.

Heather Perlis became aware of the shortage through friends who work in hospitals and saw appeals for masks on social media.

“I saw this and thought, ‘I’ve got a sewing machine. I’ve got skill,'” Perlis said. “I’m stuck at home, and I happen to have I don’t know how much fabric.’ You know, everybody who sews has large stashes of fabric. … I have to do this.”

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On the Nextdoor social media site where Perlis posted, dozens of others chipped in. Crystal Brown, the costumer at Theatre Baton Rouge, offered to donate fabric, and many took her up on the offer — some working by themselves, others on behalf of groups who were making the masks. Patterns obtained from internet sites were shared, as was advice about what fabrics to use for inner and outer layers.

These new connections inspired unexpected creativity. Retired engineer Scott Pogue, whom Perlis didn’t know, called her to donate money to her efforts. When she told him she was trying to find a design that would accommodate medical filters, he made some calls that led to a donation to order a 900-foot roll of filter material used in hospital air conditioning systems. Another person has agreed to cut it and ration the materials to other mask-makers.

“We have enough to make 10,800 masks, I think,” Perlis said.

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The material in hottest demand, however, was much more common — elastic for straps to hold the mask in place. Unable to obtain any, people began offering suggestions, including bias tape, which stretches more than other fabrics, Hammond said.

Hammond quit sewing years ago, but when her pastor, the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson at Broadmoor United Methodist Church, asked her to recruit people to make masks, she contacted women’s organizations in church and the Broadmoor subdivision. A collection box was set up on the church grounds so people could offer and pick up supplies and drop off finished masks while maintaining the necessary social distancing.

“One lady stayed up till 3 last night and made 50-something,” Hammond said.

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Making the masks is just one end of the equation. Not every medical facility will use the homemade masks. Baton Rouge General Medical Center will not use them for its clinical staff but has accepted some for patients coming into its clinics and the emergency room, hospital spokeswoman Katie Johnston said. Some of the more rural facilities have a greater need.

The masks distributed by Broadmoor United Methodist have gone to a clinic in Bunkie and the five Reddy Family Medical Clinics in Iberville, Ascension and Assumption parishes. The clinics were struggling to find masks, said Dr. Nagaratna Reddy, a family medicine physician at the clinics. The clinics sterilize the masks, and although doctors use N-95 masks, the donated ones go to staff and patients, Reddy said.

“It’s so commendable. They are going out of their way. We really thank the community,” Reddy said. “It’s such a great service for us.”


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.