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Monday, May 25, 2020

Wyoming’s Operation Medical Supplies

By Amy Litwin

Their logo is Rosie the Riveter wearing a surgical mask and the phrase, “We Can Do It!” They mean it and they are doing it. Two Wyoming neighbors and a growing circle of friends have pitched in to address the shortage of N95 and surgical facemasks vital to protecting those who must care for or serve the public during the COVID-19 crisis. On March 20, 2020, Christy Stockton and Ashley Tubb organized Operation Medical Supplies, putting out the call on Facebook to any and all with the ability to provide supplies, cut material, sew facemasks, or deliver completed products to organizations in need. Ashley created the Facebook page and Christy sourced the pattern and YouTube tutorial. The initial post included a link to an article announcing the call of Deaconess Health System for the public to sew face masks for staff.

The character of Rosie the Riveter was created as part of a government campaign to recruit female workers to the defense industries to fill the need following widespread enlistment of men during World War II. In this 100th year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote, Rosie is ubiquitous in representing the ability of women to step up to meet the needs of their communities. According to, the true identity of Rosie is not known; however, the spirit of Rosie is alive and well in Operation Medical Supplies.

Ashley and Christy noticed the buzz on the Wyoming Parents page of Facebook about the hoarding of facemasks and worried healthcare workers. They both sew and knew this skill was something they could utilize to address a critical need. Christy is completely self-taught, beginning to sew only four years ago. Having graduated from making craft bags for her kids to sewing clothes from a pattern, and having taught a few classes for a non-profit group and made pillowcases for Kudos Kids based here in Wyoming, she says that she is sewing facemasks like it is her job. She and Ashley knew, “with Wyoming, if a neighbor asks for help, it’s all hands on deck. As the page was shared, lots of people offered to either cut or sew, while others came asking for masks.”

Within seven days of putting out the call on Facebook and to the Junior Women’s Club of Wyoming, friends and neighbors joining Christy and Ashley’s operation had cut, sewn, and distributed over 400 masks and their efforts are ongoing. Masks have gone to the people on the front line serving and protecting the public, allowing the rest of us to obey the Governor’s Stay in Place Order. Those front line workers include nurses at University of Cincinnati and Christ Hospital, grocery store workers at Country Fresh Market, volunteers for the Wyoming Carryout Connection, and care providers and clients of Assisting Hands Home Care and Hamilton County Developmental Disability Services. The List Continues to Grow

The organization has a lot of moving parts and they have been learning on the job. Requests for masks are received by Christy. She keeps them in order of receipt, which is the order in which they are fulfilled, absent a rush order from medical professionals. Once the requested facemasks are ready, she notifies the person or group requesting the masks they are ready for pickup from her porch. She has done a few deliveries outside of Wyoming. In between, there are at least 20-25 people sewing to fulfill requests. Non-sewers are donating fabric and elastic or cutting donated fabric for sewing.

The biggest obstacle is the constant, and often conflicting, flow of information. Christy notes, “Each bit of confusing information can make the people sewing nervous. There’s a risk of losing them the harder the project gets.” As more and more medical staff asked for their help, Operation Medical Supplies adjusted to their needs by adapting their pattern a little bit to allow “nurses and doctors to slip their disposable masks inside ours to prolong the life of them.”

Operation Medical Supplies makes no claim regarding the efficacy of the facemasks they are producing. To the contrary, they specifically made clear in the initial Facebook post, “These masks will not protect against COVID19 but after talking to several doctors, it's better than nothing.” Additionally, a disclaimer letter accompanies each distributed batch of masks, advising the recipient:

These masks are home sewn by many hands that care about your safety! We want to remind you that these masks should not create a false sense of safety and are not a substitute for social distancing and good hygiene practices. These masks are being provided as a last resort if N95 and surgical masks are not available. The efficacy of these masks is unknown, and they are viewed by the CDC as ‘better than wearing nothing.’ Please stay safe and remember that we care as you wear your mask.

The Facemask Conundrum

An article in clarifies the distinction between N95 respirators and surgical facemasks. “N95 respirator masks differ from other types of surgical masks and face masks because they create a tight seal between the respirator and your face, which helps filter at least 95% of airborne particulates.” The CDC notes, “N95 respirators are the PPE most often used to control exposures to infections transmitted via the airborne route, ….” The short supply of both N95 respirators and surgical facemasks has led the CDC to issue a “Crisis Capacity Strategy,” which includes the use of homemade face masks.

When no facemasks are available, the CDC instructs healthcare providers “might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option.” As of February 29, 2020, with respect to N95 respirators, the CDC similarly instructs, “as a last resort,” that it may be necessary for healthcare providers to use “homemade masks” to care for patients with COVID-19. In other words, homemade masks are better than no masks at all.

There is also a debate about whether the general public should be wearing facemasks. The CDC has from the beginning of the crisis advised wearing a facemask only if one is sick or caring for the sick and they are unable to wear their own facemask. Arguments have been made that the evidence contradicts the CDC’s instructions against the general public wearing masks. In noting that, “Hospitals running short of N95-rated masks are turning to homemade cloth masks themselves,” Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at University of San Francisco, in an article in The Washington Post online, challenges the three policy arguments to dissuade the public in general from wearing facemasks.

These arguments are: there are not enough for hospital workers, the masks themselves may become contaminated, and masks encourage risky behavior. Howard argues in response: the general public can make their own masks; it is better for a mask to become contaminated than the person wearing it and potentially contaminated masks can be properly disposed of when removed; and masks would encourage risky behavior no more than seat belts encourage risky driving. As a person with COVID-19 can be contagious without symptoms, instructions limiting masks to people who are symptomatic is not logical.

The wider conflicts over the efficacy of handmade facemasks and whether they should be worn by the general public aside, there is no question the recipients of Operation Medical Supplies’ masks appreciate them. Operation Medical Supplies has received thank you notes and photos from recipients, including: Assisting Hands Home Care, Christ Hospital, and U.C. Medical Center. They are proudly posted on the organization’s Facebook page. The team behind Operation Medical Supplies has stepped up to address this insufficiency, and they deserve our appreciation.

The efforts of Operation Medical Supplies are ongoing and adapting to the changing needs of healthcare workers and other frontline service providers.

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