Mask Makers: Local quilters sewing masks for health care workers

By JOSHUA WILSON,

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical masks are in short supply, but one Hattiesburg group is working to ensure health care workers in the Pine Belt have what they need.

Through Project Masks, the group – consisting of local quilters and others who are donating the needed supplies – is sewing and distributing fabric masks to local hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.

Ka Russum of Hattiesburg, a registered nurse, is an organizer of the project. She retired five years ago after serving for 40 years as a nurse at Forrest General Hospital.

“A project like this is real close to my heart and is my passion,” Russum said.

She became aware of the need almost immediately after the pandemic first struck Forrest County in early March.

Her son, Hunter, works for a medical distribution company that services area health care providers.

“He sent me a text message when this shortage started – and he asked if I was ready to start sewing masks,” she said. “I realized he was serious, and he put me in touch with some of the administration for Forrest General.”

Russum spoke with administrators at the hospital, who assured her of the need for masks and helped her craft a mask design that meets U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“It was evident there was a need, and there would be a need for a while,” she said. “So, I called a few friends I know that sew … and they were very excited to help.”

She also reached out to members of her Bible study group, and Project Masks was born.

“It has grown, and people are so generous with their time and talents. People are helping find supplies and donating them, too,” she noted.

According to Russum, the short supply of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, has impacted “a lot of folks.”

“I lived through Hurricane Katrina at Forrest General, and while this is a very different type of disaster, it made me go back to my thoughts about that and how helpless I felt,” she said. “We want to avoid that now, and we want to take care of our health care workers and our patients.”

Russum and her fellow mask makers delivered their first shipment – a little more than a hundred masks – to Forrest General on Friday. On Monday, they “delivered about the same number,” she said, and the group is making anywhere between 50 to 100 additional masks per day.

Masks have also been delivered to Merit Health Wesley and even to a janitorial company that services local health care clinics.

She said it takes her anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to make one mask, and members of the group are working from their homes or local sewing stores.

“Sewing stores have opened their doors to help us,” she said. “Our quilters are going to a local store, where they’re staying 6 feet apart, but they’re working together to make this happen.”

Russum said the fabric masks are not the N95 masks “that we’re hearing so much about.”

N95 masks, according to the CDC, are the most common of the seven types of particulate-filtering facepiece respirators, and they filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles.

“One of the things Forrest General is doing is prolonging the N95 masks due to a short supply,” she said. “They are putting a fabric mask over the N95 mask, and when the fabric mask gets soiled, it can be taken off and washed.”

Russum said the CDC has approved the use of fabric masks “in times of disaster … when there is no other alternative.”

“Unfortunately, we’re at that point,” she said.

She said the receivers of the masks are so appreciative.

“The chief nursing officer at Forrest General said our efforts were phenomenal,” she said. “It is making a difference.”

The group has a plentiful supply of fabric, said Russum, but they are in need of lengths of elastic – in any color, she said – and pipe cleaners.

“We are using pipe cleaners across the top of the mask for a better fit,” she said.

Donations can be dropped off at Russum’s home at 3017 Raphael Drive in Hattiesburg.

She said anyone with questions – or anyone wanting to volunteer to sew – can text message her at (601) 297-1969.

“We’ll continue to do this over the next several weeks … as long as it takes to help out our people,” said Russum.