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She went looking for three people to sew surgical masks. She found 3,000.

Photo illustration by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hannah Rosenblatt had been sitting on the couch at her parents’ house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, winding down by having dinner and watching the news on television with her siblings. She had been home only one day, after Northeastern, acting on the guidance of public health authorities, asked students to move out of their dormitories on March 17. Her older sister was back, too, from studying at Columbia and her brother, also older, had decided to work at home from the family house rather than from his place in Cambridge.

Their father, a surgeon, arrived home from work at his hospital, agitated and rankled. Seeing his three children, all in their 20s, gathered in the living room, he barked a few questions about their plans for the evening. Finally, he says, “We need masks. We’re running out of masks. You need to get three old ladies to sew masks.”

As their father trudged up the stairs, coincidentally, ABC News was airing a story about nurses in Indiana making surgical masks out of bed sheets. “The growing pandemic triggered an emergency shortage of masks, especially federally regulated N95 masks.” In early March, the World Health Organization warned that the shortage is, “putting lives at risk,” and estimated that, globally, 89 million masks per month were needed in the fight against COVID-19. Though Rosenblatt, a senior majoring in health science, still is busy with online classes, her father’s exasperation personalized the story. The family went into action.

The basement of Hannah Rosenblatt’s family home in Lincoln, Massachusetts has become the epicenter of an effort to provide effective home-sewn surgical masks to protect U.S. hospital workers. Photos courtesy Hannah Rosenblatt

“We just thought, well, what do we do?” Rosenblatt says. “We started looking for three old ladies.”

They found much more. Rosenblatt and her siblings—none of whom can do much sewing themselves—engaged a string of social media outlets to recruit and organize a crew of needleworkers that within one day numbered 3,000, while their parents (Rosenblatt’s mother also is a surgeon) did the old-fashioned work of tapping acquaintances for favors.

The idea of home-sewing masks has cropped up elsewhere, but with a pair of surgeons in the house, Rosenblatt and her family want to produce masks that are tested and effective, if not against the spread of the coronavirus, then at least for use in other procedures to conserve the dwindling supply of N95 masks.

After the initial challenge from her father, Rosenblatt went to a  Facebook page and posted: “We are looking for 3 or more individuals with sewing machines willing to help.” Her brother also posted a request on a Patch website. Within three hours, 700 email replies were waiting. Stunned by the response, the siblings set up a Google form for volunteers. Within 12 hours, there were 3,000 responses and would have been more except that the volume of emails triggered a shut-down of the form.

“Google must have thought we were spam,” Rosenblatt says. “It locked us out. We’re just overwhelmed at that point. We don’t know how to organize these people, we don’t have the fabric, all that kind of stuff.”

Still, they’d tapped into a deep impulse in the community to help, and knowing there were thousands of respondents, eager to start, with needles and thread at the ready, girded their resolve. Rosenblatt and her siblings have been shepherding that eagerness into broad-scale action. They’ve established a Facebook page, Masks for Massachusetts, where they’ve posted instructions on sewing masks, lists of hospitals that accept masks, and updates on fabric testing.

“It’s been a good response,” Rosenblatt says. “You can do a little bit on your own but collectively we can really do something.”

Friends and connections have come through, too. When Rosenblatt, an assistant coach this season for the Northeastern women’s soccer team—she is also one of the best players in school history, third on the all-time list with 29 goals scored—needed a logo for the project’s Facebook page, she asked fellow soccer player Eve Goulet, who drew one up in hours.

When a major donation was needed—fabric—Rosenblatt’s mother reached out to colleagues in the Midwest and connected with the wife of Wade Miquelon, the chief executive officer of Jo-Ann Fabric. He pledged to send as much fabric as needed.

Rosenblatt’s father went to a friend with a connection at Calvin Klein. Within days, 15 boxes packed with 900 pairs of men’s boxer briefs showed up, then a box of designer jeans. The elastics from the underwear could be useful for full-face masks and the denim in the jeans could be used for standard surgical masks.

In the meantime, Rosenblatts’s family still has jobs and studying to do in the house, which is, as she put it, “a bit unorganized.” The ping-pong table in the basement is buried beneath shears, cutting boards and yards of fabric. There’s a folding table in the study strewn with supplies and in the adjacent room, there’s a mess of bags, tissues and ribbons.

On Facebook, the sewing volunteers are antsy. But Masks for Massachusetts aims not just to give masks but to give masks worth having, laboratory-tested for design and material. The COVID-19 crisis will be with us for a while. Rosenblatt and her family hope to mitigate the mask shortage in Massachusetts and, maybe, establish best practices that can be used in sewing circles across the United States.

“We just got started with this,” Rosenblatt says. “It’s not something that I think is going to end, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future. The need for this kind of stuff is not going anywhere. The masks are spread thin so if we can get this off the ground and help other people out, why not?”

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