Nicole Jochym never imagined it happening so quickly.
Ten days after forming the Sew Face Masks Philadelphia Facebook group, the medical student at Cooper Medical School at Rowan University in South Jersey has quickly amassed 3,000 volunteers.
Thousands heeded her call to make more face masks available to people in the greater Philadelphia region.
The shortage of face masks around the country has bothered Jochym since the outbreak of the coronavirus last month.
“I remember my first week of medical school…someone was sick. I vividly remember that person coughing in an elevator, and some of those people who were inside got sick. Whatever the illness was, it spread around the campus,” Jochym said.
With that memory fresh on her mind, Jochym knew she had to do something to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
“When the pandemic first started, I was home and on Facebook and met a like-minded person who said reusable face masks were better than nothing. So, we started a Facebook group urging people to sew face masks. We only expected 80 people to help,” Jochym said.
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“The majority of them are locals and have safety or education backgrounds,” Jochym said.
Some volunteers are tasked with sewing the masks. Once they’re finished, other volunteers pick them up and do contactless deliveries around the Philadelphia and Camden areas. Jochym said since mid-March, volunteers have completed and dropped off 1,299 masks.
Their work is just beginning, Jochym said. The requests for face masks keep coming.
Nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, home health aids, businesses and community workers have requested thousands of additional masks through their website.
Officially, recommendations regarding face masks have been mixed. It wasn’t long ago that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed most people didn’t need to wear face masks during the pandemic, unless they had COVID-19, took care of someone who did, or were in the healthcare field.
But as the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed, the CDC announced it’s taking another look at the data around mask use by the public. Recently, the CDC said when face masks are not available, homemade masks such as bandanas or scarves may used as a last resort. The CDC also said homemade masks should be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front and sides of the face.
Jochym admitted disposable face masks are the gold standard, but said reusable ones are a good alternative. She said the scientists she's consulting recommend using 100% woven cotton for the masks. They must be washed every day.
“If you’re not using them correctly, don’t use them. We’re not blindly recommending them. We are teaching people how to use them correctly," she said. "If you sneeze or if the mask gets moist inside, remove it and use another one. It’s rare that one will last an entire day.”
Jochym said volunteers are using material they already have around their homes to make their masks. At this point, her group hasn’t solicited donations. But that may change if the need for masks continues to grow.
“I anticipate doing this forever. I also think that when this is over, people should consider wearing face masks whenever they’re sick, so they can protect themselves and others," she said.