It takes an army to help fight the mask shortage

Last Updated by Mark Harden on

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the need for protective masks is acute, particularly among medical personnel. Yet there is a nationwide shortage of masks, potentially leaving doctors, nurses and other health-care workers at risk.

So Dena Mehling of Denver has been pitching in to help out by firing up her sewing machine.

"I am an avid sewer and quilter in general. Kinda one of those crazy craft persons," Mehling says. "And I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a doctor in a local hospital, and he said, ... 'Do you have any of your friends who want to do some sewing for us? We're running low on masks, we're going to be out of them. I could really use these masks!' "

To help in the cause, Mehling has enlisted "Dena's Mask Making Army." On March 27 she set up a Facebook group that was shared repeatedly. By six days later, the group had 602 members.

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Among those who answered the call is Cristin Prener.

"I was feeling a lot of anxiety being at home ... with this whole COVID thing," Prener says. " ... And then Dena posted that, and basically, through my experience, anything Dena does fabulous and worth doing and a lot of fun."

With stay-at-home orders in effect across Colorado, Mehling and her "army" are not interacting face to face. "So I think [the mask project] is providing a level of human interaction in a time where we're just not allowed to have any,” she says.

Mehling calls the reaction to her plea for help "super wonderful."

"I never thought in a million years that people would come together this way," she says. "... Everybody wants to help where they can."

"I have so many friends and family who are in the health-care industry and they don't have any supplies to protect them," says another volunteer, Yvonne Min. "So it's been really hard to hear [their] stories. I have a friend who's using a coffee filter at a hospital right now. And I thought is there's anything we can do to keep them safe, I had to get involved."

"People are just hungry for something to do, to give us back a little of our power, and the sense that we can do something in this; we're not just helpless," adds Prener.

Rebecca Hubbard, who's also helping out, says she worked in nursing homes for 15 years before staying home with her son.

"And I've been through many outbreaks in those 15 years -- norovirus, flu, quarantines -- so I know how absolutely critical PPE [personal protective equipment] is, and it's just something that we took for granted," she says. "Every outbreak I've ever been though, you just grab a gown, grab a mask. ... It was never a question that you would have enough. And the idea that something this scary and this big, and not having that PPE was just really overwhelming and sad."

In talking with her friends in health care, Hubbard says that "even just hearing that people are doing this makes them feel more supported and gives them a sense that they can get through."

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In addition to doctors and nurses, the masks have gone to emergency medical technicians and workers at long-term health care facilities.

As hard as they're working, Mehling's volunteers know that there still won't be enough masks for every health-care worker who needs one as coronavirus cases mount.

"We can't fulfill every need in the country," Mehling says. "We would love to, but that's never going to happen. We're just a drop in the bucket. But we've made a difference for every person who's received a mask.

"You can't save the world, but you can make one person feel a lot better. ... It makes me feel really good."

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Insight with John Ferrugia is in-depth, independent and incisive. John and a team of investigative journalists present thoroughly researched stories of significance to Colorado.