BLACKSBURG — Carol Davis doesn’t know exactly how she became the epicenter of a fast-spreading movement to put sewing machines to use to fight COVID-19.

But the town resident is now working to organize a group of more than 80 people who want to help stave off shortages of crucial surgical-grade masks for health care workers. To do that, the NRV Mask Makers Facebook group is sewing cloth masks to distribute to facilities that use masks but won’t be on the front lines of coronavirus response.

The hope, Davis said, is to offer an alternative where appropriate. And if worst comes to worst, to provide a backstop should medical care systems become overwhelmed.

It’s also good for the makers, many of whom are cloistered at home but wanting to help.

“It gives me something to do besides watch the news,” Davis said.

A similar group, Roanoke COVID Makers Task Force has attracted about 600 people with skills in everything from sewing to 3D printing who want to help, co-organizer Tamara Dennis said.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Dennis said. “Having something you feel like you’re contributing, a sense of being part of something … helps the makers. It’s a good thing to see — people stepping up.”

Right now, sewers in the group are making cloth masks for facilities and organizations that request them, Dennis said. They are also researching DIY equipment designs coming out of hard-hit states such as Washington and New York for things like 3D -printed face shields that could be useful if the pandemic overwhelms systems here.

So far, hospitals such as those owned by Carilion Clinic have said they can’t accept homemade face masks and other DIY items for use in their facilities.

“But we’re thrilled people are taking these kinds of efforts,” spokesman Chris Turnbull said. It’s a matter of finding where community efforts and the hospitals can work together, he added.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list cloth masks as a last resort to be used only if no other options are available, and even then guidelines suggest medical personnel use a face shield with them to provide better protection.

But other organizations and facilities are taking the cloth masks.

Sam Moore, a Bedford upholstery manufacturer, is sewing cloth masks for Centra Bedford Memorial Hospital, which has received about 100 of them, according to a Sam Moore news release.

“The cotton masks are not medical grade, but are intended to help reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission as a worthwhile substitute for those without access to any protection, given the shortages around the world,” the release stated.

Warm Hearth Village, a nonprofit 600-resident continuing care retirement community just outside Blacksburg has agreed to take some of NRV Mask Makers’ cloth masks for low-risk applications.

“We have a supply, but it’s very hard to get hold of anything extra,” said Michelle Narramore, who administers home health services at Warm Hearth. “If these people are willing to take fabric that they have, supplies that they have, time that they have and do something super worthwhile and lovely, it is very much appreciated.”

Narramore said the cloth masks will be used in Warm Hearth facilities first and any extras will be used for home health visits.

Roanoke Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback said masks are one of the department’s greatest needs right now, and while they are slated to get a shipment of medical-grade supplies later this spring, the department is looking at contingencies.

One of those is accepting homemade masks from a local group volunteering to make them. The masks wouldn’t be medical-grade and wouldn’t replace those used by the department. But a donated mask could be placed over a medical mask — helping to protect it and to extend the life of crucial gear.

“We’re trying to be creative,” Hoback said.

Donated masks must meet certain standards and be made of fabric that offers a certain grade of permeability. Local organizers are aware of that and said they’re prepared to meet the requirements, Hoback said.

“They’ve been very gracious,” he said.

The DIY mask making efforts gained momentum nationally after Indiana’s Deaconess Health System put out a request for them, as well as video instructions. The response has been so great that Deaconess has now created a database to help connect makers with organizations that want cloth masks.

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