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BRATTLEBORO — Folks around the region, finding they have some spare time on their hands, are chipping in to make face masks for essential workers.

"Myself and another co-worker, we work at the Retreat, have been making masks for our co-workers," said Donna Tosi, a mental health worker who also describes herself as an avid quilter. Tosi admitted that as a quilter, she has quite the supply of materials to make masks.

"I have more fabric than Walmart," she said. "When my husband asks do you really need more fabric, this was why. I was saving up for this day."

Tosi and other local people began making masks in earnest because of a nationwide shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As you probably know, stitchers of all varieties are trying to help with containing and defeating the spread of the coronavirus pandemic," wrote Sandy Dadik of Newfane in an email blast from Twin States Modern Quilt Guild. "As quilters we can join in this effort by making face masks as a DIY arm of our Cozy Quilt mission."

Cozy Quilts is the local branch of the guild.

Dadik wrote that homemade masks are not replacements for N95 masks, but are effective in containing sneezes and coughs, can be washed and dried and made safe to reuse. The FDA notes that N95 respirators, which are in short supply, protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, and should instead reserve the masks for those on the frontline of battling the coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the United States will require 3.5 billion masks if the pandemic lasts a year.

The masks that Tosi and others are making are being used at places such as Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend by all staff who are not directly involved with patient care, said Andrea Seaton, executive director of Grace Cottage Foundation.

"The homemade masks are also for patients who come into the building for lab tests, X-rays and medical provider visits," she said. "We are using certified, medical grade N95 and surgical masks for our front-line clinic and ancillary staff who are providing direct patient care, and for those who are in close proximity to a patient."

Jen Batty, who lives in Dummerston, started a Front Porch Forum group for mask makers that has since expanded into a Facebook group because of the response.

"We have 52 people now and growing in the Sewing Masks Project — Southern VT Area group," said Batty.

Batty said the effort first focused on supplying masks to medical centers.

"But we've gotten requests from other facilities, hospitals and nursing homes," she said. "The Brattleboro Food Co-op is getting some, too."

Batty, who calls herself the project manager for the Facebook group, said she is collecting information for group members who can decide where to send their masks to.

"We are making the mask patterns that the facilities have asked for," said Batty. Right now, she said, there are three patterns available, two simple fabric masks to go over the N95s and another pattern that has a pocket for a homemade filter that can be removed.

Although the group has more than 50 members, she said, more mask makers are needed, as well as people who can help coordinate and make deliveries. Batty also said she is taking donations of fabric, elastic and bias tape.

Beth Smallheer, the sister of Reformer reporter Susan Smallheer and a resident of Rockingham, said she had been thinking about making masks when she got the email from the Quilters Guild.

She is using a pattern recommended by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

"People are glad to have something constructive to do, some way to help," said Smallheer, who said she is finishing up her first dozen. "In so many other ways we feel powerless."

Tosi said she and her co-worker, Dawn Kenny, a residential RN, have together made about 200 masks, some of those just simple fabric and others with interfacing, fabric inserted between two layers of cotton that is normally used to add structure. In this case, the interfacing serves as a filter that can be removed when the masks are washed. The interface material can be set aside for several days, a process that kills any contagions.

"Per the CDC I have used materials they say are the best," writes Tosi in a note attached to each mask she makes. "T-shirt on the face side to help with comfort and wicking away moisture. Cotton on outside for the best material to prevent matter from seeping [through]. I also added a layer of interfacing to increase your protection in the middle."

Tosi said many of her co-workers are using the masks when they are out in public to protect the Retreat's patients.

"Our patients don't leave but we do," she said. "We don't want to bring anything into the hospital."

To learn more about the sewing project, visit here. Those who would like to make masks that meet the specifications of BMH should visit here for directions. If making masks for Dartmouth Hitchcock, visit here. To find out who is requesting masks, visit here .

Serenity Smith Forchion, who founded the New England Center for Circus Arts with her twin sister, and her father Stephen Smith have taken the mask making one step further.

"It was my dad's idea," she said. "He discovered that furnace filter is MERV-13 and can provide some protection against the coronavirus."

To receive a MERV-13 rating, a filter has to stop up to 75 percent of particles from .3 to 1 micron, 90 percent from 1 to 3 microns and 90 percent from 3 to 10 microns. According to a study presented in The Lancet, a medical journal, the coronavirus itself measures between .05 and 0.2 microns in diameter.

"I'd like to give a shout out to Brown and Roberts and Webb Plumbing Supply for helping us find enough furnace filters," said Forchion.

By taking apart one furnace filter, she said they can get enough material for about 10 masks. This includes an installed filter and three extra filters per mask.

"When you take the filter out and store it at room temperature for four days the virus will die," said Smith, who said developing the prototype has been "very exciting."

"I haven't slept for six nights," he said.

Forchion said the pattern they are using comes courtesy of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where another sister, Felicity Billings, is an anesthesiologist.

"She tested them out and told me which version works best," said Forchion, who recently dropped off a batch of homemade masks at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

"BMH is encouraging all staff to wear a disposable surgical/dust mask or a reusable homemade/cloth mask when in patient care areas," wrote Gina Pattison, BMH's director of development and marketing, in an email. "These masks help protect our patients and other staff members by decreasing the possibility of someone who is asymptomatic spreading the virus to others."

Pattison noted that healthcare workers who have close, prolonged contact with a known or suspected COVID-19 patient are using the N95 masks.

Since starting the project, said Forchion, she and her father have found a supplier of rolls of filter material so they don't have to take apart actual filter materials.

"There is no question that these are never going to be as good as the N95 masks," said Stephen Smith. "But they're better than nothing."

While the now named "Better Than Nothing" masks aren't rated for COVID-19 protection, two layers of fabric enclosing the filter material makes them pretty effective for most people, he said.

"Wearing these masks could help flatten the curve," said Smith. "And anyone can wear them or give them to healthcare workers."

"The final version of the mask is simply a variation on a pleated cotton face mask version but adding in a wire nose piece, for a more snug fit, and a filter insert rated at MERV13 or higher," said Forchion.

Smith and Forchion have created an open source document they are sharing with the public. It is available here.

Bob Audette can be contacted at

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