Health workers in some hospital departments aren't required to wear masks, and with an ever-tightening supply, some nurses and aides can't wear them even if they wanted.

With anxiety over COVID-19 running high among patients and clinical staff, an army of volunteers convened — at a safe distance from each other, isolated in their own homes — to stitch together as many reusable, homemade face masks as possible.

They want to give hospital workers a little more protection against COVID-19, and some peace of mind that they're slowing its spread.

In Pennsylvania, medical societies and other partners are coordinating a campaign, open to anyone with a sewing machine and some free time, called the "Masked Bandits."

Face masks shouldn't be considered true personal protective equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a pinch, they can stop larger droplets and airborne particles bearing disease from entering the lungs and planting infection.

The CDC considers them a last-ditch solution along with bandanas.

The best masks, the elusive N95 respirators, provide the highest level of protection and form a tight seal around the nose and mouth, blocking out 95% of airborne particles when used correctly.

The world's supply of N95 masks hit the floor when factories across China, the world's largest producer of personal protective medical supplies, shut down as the health crisis spread.

Chinese factories are coming back online again, and U.S. manufacturers, namely 3M and Prestige Ameritech, are ramping up to make millions of masks each week, but it could take months until production meets demand.

So face masks, though inferior to N95 masks, can go a long way to help conserve the available supply.

Getting started

For volunteers who want to get started, people are asked to use new fabric. A pattern can be found online at www.turbanproject.com/face-masks-pdfs.

Don't wash the masks when finished. Hospital staff will inspect and sanitize them before distributing.

Patient-facing health workers, such as surgeons and nurses handling cases where N95 masks are recommended, would not wear the homemade masks.

But lots of other people who don't come into direct contact with patients could use the extra protection on the job.

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