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Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - How your sewing skills can help fight coronavirus

St. Tammany Health System registered nurses, from left, Merry Thomas, Brittany Fussell and Amanda Garcia show off their Chemo Beanies – a hybrid cap and headscarf designed for cancer patients but useful for those on the front lines of the coronavirus fight – at the Covington hospital on Wednesday, March 25. While theirs came from the STHS gift shop, instructions for crafting homemade versions can be found at a number of websites. (Photo by Tim San Fillippo)

By Mike Scott, mscott@stph.org

Don’t put away those sewing machines just yet, do-it-yourselfers.

While safety concerns have prompted many healthcare facilities to decline donations of homemade surgical masks intended to ease supply issues amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, there’s another way for craftier members of the community to put their sewing skills to work for local healthcare workers.

Many of those on the front lines of the coronavirus fight are finding that headcap scarves designed for cancer patients come in handy as a supplement to hospital-issued personal protective equipment.

Versions of the headcap scarves are sold under brand names including Chemo Beanies, but instructions on how to craft homemade versions are available on a number of crafting websites.

According to St. Tammany Health System nurse Brittany Fussell RN, her Chemo Beanie not only gives her peace of mind that she’s not carrying contaminants in her hair when she’s done with her shift, but it also protects her from the elastic bands that hold her surgical mask and face shield in place.

“The elastic on an N95 mask is like a newspaper rubber band,” Fussell said. “It’s terrible, and it hurts. So, (the scarves) are good for safety, cleanliness – and pain.”

Homemade surgical masks have been touted recently as a creative outlet for people eager to help ease medical supply shortages amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. But while they might be useful as a form of therapy during self-isolation, they’re too loosely woven to protect from viruses, giving them limited use in a medical context.

That has prompted a number of healthcare facilities, including STHS, to decline donations of homemade masks.

“St. Tammany Health System thanks our community for offers of homemade masks,” STHS wrote in a recent advisory. “Please be aware the CDC only recommends homemade masks as an effort of last resort; they are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and caution must be exercised to protect our workforce.”

The statement went on to note that the hospital’s Materials Management team is constantly sourcing supplies and that STHS currently has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment on-hand to care safely for patients and employees. 

It’s not the only local healthcare organization saying “thanks, but no thanks” to makers of homemade masks, according to a story recently published on NOLA.com and in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.

Others include Ochsner Health System, which is a partner of STHS.

“We’re blown away and truly humbled by the offers of donations and support from our community,” an Ochsner spokeswoman was quoted as saying, noting that the hospital group “has a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment.”

Unlike surgical masks, however, headcap scarves aren’t relied upon to block contaminants from entering the respiratory system, so they aren’t held to strict CDC standards.

That prompted the volunteer St. Tammany Hospital Guild to buy all 40 Chemo Beanies in stock at the Covington hospital’s gift shop – at $24.95 a pop -- and distribute them for free to STHS nurses.

“This is just one way in which the Guild can help the hospital even though we’re not there physically,” said Lane, who, like other volunteers, has been asked to remain at home until the coronavirus threat passes. “We’re part of the family, so we’re still helping how we can.”

For the latest information on COVID-19 coronavirus in St. Tammany Parish, visit STPH.org/COVID-19.