Austinites Make Face Masks To Help Fill The Need As Hospitals Face Shortages

Mar 25, 2020

Hospitals and health care facilities say they don’t have enough equipment to protect doctors and nurses treating patients with COVID-19. Masks, gloves, gowns and face shields are all on backorder.

To get more masks to people who need them, the medical community here is asking Austinites to make their own.

Watkins shows off a completed mask. The handmade masks are not ideal for health care workers, but are better than no protection.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Abby Stephenson sewed 15 masks over the weekend. She's not a professional seamstress, but she has a sewing machine and knows the basics.

She says she had been feeling anxious about the reality of COVID-19, especially because she felt powerless over the situation.

"I hate not being able to do anything," she said.

But then Stephenson saw a post on Facebook from a health care professional asking for homemade masks.

“So as soon as I saw someone had something that they needed that I could give them I jumped on it,” she said.

Nishi Viswanathan, the director of Texas Health Catalyst at UT’s Dell Medical School, says health care workers know homemade masks won’t be the same quality as a professional N95 mask, but they can get close. 

"For example," she said, "we have these double layer masks where there is a pocket where you can insert an approved filter, so it gets a little bit closer to [personal protective equipment]."

Robbie Rosati, a PhD student in physics at UT Austin, was also looking for a way to help. After reading about the lack of ventilators in Italy, he did some research to see if he could make a ventilator on a 3D printer. He shifted his focus after talking to some health care providers.

“What we realized is what people need now isn’t ventilators, it’s more masks, face shields and personal protective equipment," or PPE. 

He and a group of 40 PhD students, post docs and professors created prototypes for face shields and masks. They've asked UT for permission to use a lab with a 3D printer, since UT closed all labs.

UT and Austin Community College have already donated PPE that won't be used since classes on campus are canceled.

Want To Make Your Own Mask?

Here’s a tutorial from Dell Medical on how to sew a mask.

Dell has also created a website called COVID-19 ATX Exchange, where people who are sewing masks can connect with groups looking for them.

And when the supply chain catches up and hospitals get professional masks, new homemade ones can go to groups like Meals on Wheels or other elder care institutions.