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Some SF clinics seek hand-sewn face masks; others say 'no thanks'

San Francisco-based apparel designer Jennifer Wofford in a self-made face mask. | Photo: Jennifer Wofford/Instagram
By Saul Sugarman - Published on March 31, 2020.

While everyday San Franciscans have faced store shelves stripped of toilet paper and dry food, medical workers are confronting an even bigger crisis: a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, surgical gowns, and most importantly, face masks. 

Concerned locals have already organized drives to collect professional-quality PPE from individuals who have it in stock at home. But that's not enough to meet the surging demand in many U.S. hospitals.

In a modern answer to World War II's homefront mobilization, hundreds of seamstresses have rallied together to create homemade cloth masks that may help shield health workers and slow the spread of COVID-19. Medical centers in IllinoisSouthern California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas are now accepting both hand-sewn and factory-made cloth masks.

But so far, most hospitals in Northern California have turned the homemade masks down. Hoodline called more than a dozen San Francisco clinics, hospitals, and the city Department of Public Health, asking operators and other front-desk representatives if they accepted hand-sewn masks. Several of them said no, while many others were caught off-guard by the question.

But at least three medical groups in San Francisco did say that they're interested in donations of home-sewn masks. (There's more info on how to donate below.)

The group includes HealthRight 360, which operates 15 locations and four clinics in San Francisco. An administrator said hand-sewn masks are only being accepted in case they're needed in the future, but was happy to hear that locals are getting the word out. 

"San Francisco doesn’t seem to be doing as badly as the rest of the country," said Jennifer Wofford, a local apparel designer and co-founder of a women's co-working space in the Inner Sunset. "I don’t think our hospitals have run out of resources yet."

However, two of Wofford's friends — a nurse and doctor — have offered to pay her to make them masks.

"The text message made me cry," she said. "It broke my heart, my friends being in this position."

Designer Jennifer Wofford's home studio for mask making. | PHOTO: JENNIFER WOFFORD/INSTAGRAM

After assisting her friends, Wofford wanted to do more to help. So she sent out a tweet offering to provide free masks to medical professionals, using a pattern created by Utah hematologist and oncologist Mark Lewis.

To date, Wofford has made 80 masks to help protect medical professionals from all over the U.S. and Canada.

As for the masks' efficacy, "it depends on who you ask," said Miguel Villaguevara, clinical operations manager for American Hospice and Home Health Care, which makes house calls to patients in Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, and San Joaquin counties.

"I know our nurses would be thrilled to have something they can at least wear when walking into peoples' homes,"  Villaguevara said. "We are in short supplies for any type of personal protective equipment. Everything is backlogged."

But Robbie Berg, a New York-based medical student who's set to graduate this summer, said hospital workers interacting with COVID-19 patients should wear only the CDC-approved N95 mask.

"What makes them so effective isn’t just the material, it’s the fit and the testing to find the perfect adjustment," said Berg, adding he spent a day getting fitted for an N95 mask when he worked in a hospital. He was even instructed to shave, because beards compromise the masks' fit.

"[Even] in non-crisis times, N95 fitting is super serious," Berg said.

That doesn't mean hand-sewn masks are useless for every medical professional. Cloth masks can still provide some protection for those not directly exposed to known COVID-19 patients, like staff members in non-clinical areas.

While Kaiser Permanente's San Francisco hospital says it isn't accepting homemade cloth masks, the Kaiser system as a whole is soliciting them. They've even posted online instructions and an instructional video, and will send mask-makers packaging and an electronic label to return masks to their offices.

"Your time and talents will be much appreciated by the Kaiser Permanente family," they write. 


Clinics accepting hand-sewn masks

  • HealthRight 360 is accepting donations of handmade masks and other supplies at its 1563 Mission St. office. Masks can also be mailed there, to the attention of Hannah Mathis. Email them for more information.
  • Cole Street Youth Clinic also told us they'd take hand-sewn masks. Call (415) 386-9398 to set up a time to deliver the masks to its location at 555 Cole St.
  • EzCare Medical Clinic will take hand-sewn masks at 1884 Market St. Call (415) 966-0848 to learn more.

Organizations on the fence about hand-sewn masks

No to hand-sewn masks at these places

  • While Kaiser Permanente as a whole is accepting cloth masks, its 2233 Geary St. hospital says it only wants N95 masks. 
  • UCSF Parnassus told Hoodline it only wants N95 masks. 
  • One Medical at Two Embarcadero Center told Hoodline it's only accepting N95 masks or "regular over-ear loop masks."
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