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Sew-cial Distancing Is Labor Of Love for Mask Makers

Courtesy of Becky Adkins



Since mid-March, Curtis Jackson hasn’t had any lines to memorize. The local theater company where he performs canceled all shows due to coronavirus so the actor’s idle hands went in search of work. 

“I couldn’t go work in a hospital or anything,” he says over Skype from his Midtown home. “So it was like, ‘Oh okay, well I can sew.’” 

And sew he has. A former costume designer, Jackson is now using his stitching chops to churn out between 60 and 70 cloth face masks a week as part of a volunteer group that has found a shared sense of purpose in a global pandemic . 

Credit Courtesy of Curtis Jackson
Volunteer Curtis Jackson sews out of his bedroom.

“It’s not hyperbole to think that you are saving folks’ lives,” says Becky Adkins, a nurse practitioner at a senior living facility in Southaven, Miss.

She recruited Jackson and about 70 other volunteers to provide organizations like hers, which serve elderly or vulnerable people in the Mid-South, with homemade cloth masks for workers. 

“If you have folks who are asymptomatic but actually COVID positive, if they’re not wearing a mask, they’re more likely to transmit those COVID germs,” she says.    

The D.I.Y. face coverings are no substitute for medical-grade masks such as N-95s. But their use by some employees -- the ones who don’t come into close contact with the most vulnerable -- can stretch limited and expensivesupplies of higher quality protective equipment.

Jesse Samples, head of the Tennessee Health Care Association, says that even now many assisted living and nursing homes still have precarious quantities of PPE. His organization represents about 400 senior-living facilities statewide. Several homes that spoke to WKNO said the situation has improved, but there’s still a need to conserve gear. 

“Only recently have the long-term care facilities been elevated up to a priority for PPE,” Samples says, also noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency began distributing gear  directly to homes less than a month ago. “It takes a while for that pipeline to really mature.”  

Credit Courtesy of Becky Adkins

  When Adkins’ group started sewing before the official onset of the local shutdown, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hadn’t yet recommended that everyone wear face coverings in public. It also wasn’t widely understood that an estimated 35 percent of people can transmit the virus asymptomatically.  

But early on, Adkins recognized the danger to elder-care facilities; people who assist the residents stood a good chance of unknowlingly carrying the virus with them to work. 

“Once COVID gets in, it is hard to keep it from running through your building because whoever brought it in, didn’t know they had it,” she says. “Now they’ve spread it to several, several patients, who have then probably spread it to other staff, and...it’s like a wildfire.”

With the help of monetary donations, the sewing group has made about 6,000 masks to date. They’ve invented their own well-oiled, mini-supply chain for fabric, thread and labor. 

Many of the masks begin in Jen Steinmetz’s East Memphis home.  

“These two bottom drawers are full of fabric,” she says pointing to a small dresser in her dining room, which has been transformed into a distribution hub of sorts.  

Steinmetz packages up the washed and ironed material into a kit, along with elastic. She also provides thread and even sewing machine oil to ensure the machines keep humming along. 

Credit Courtesy of Jen Steinmetz
Jen Steinmetz has turned her dining room into a supply center for the group.

Volunteers drop the kits at sewers’ homes and return completed masks back to Steinmetz, who prepares them for delivery. There are other behind-the-scenes roles like the volunteer who calls the facilities to figure out how many masks they need or the one who keeps the spreadsheet tracking them.   

It’s a labor of love in an otherwise overwhelming global emergency. 

“Just to kind of keep my mind off of it, it was just really helpful to be a part of something that was tangible and able to keep my focus,” Steinmetz says. “And also feel like I was doing something to help the situation. Otherwise, I think I would have just felt completely helpless.”    

For Samples, with the Healthcare Association, the masks have a practical use, but also send a personal message to the workers who receive them.  

“It also lets them know that the people out in the community are thinking about them and helping them and remembering they’re a vital part of this battle against the coronavirus,” he says.