Cayman community answers call for protective masks

Red Cross, Massive Media and others organise island-wide efforts

Before Cayman shut down operations in response to coronavirus fears, Esly Conolly worked as a secretary at a busy medical office in George Town.

Now, working remotely from home, she remains as busy as ever. She splits her days between answering patient queries, caring for her family and sewing face masks to donate to frontline workers, such as medical staff and police.

So far, Conolly and her two sisters, Bianca Amaya and Noemi Perez, have sewn and distributed nearly 60 masks and they are producing more. The sisters request no money for their efforts; they only accept donations of supplies, such as materials donated by
Dr. Sanjib Mohanty and his family, so that they can continue sewing.

“This is what we can do to help, and we have received donations from many people with good hearts,” Conolly wrote in a Facebook post.

She is one of many Cayman residents who have stepped up in response to the international shortage of medical-grade masks by making her own.

Separately, the Red Cross of the Cayman Islands is mobilising the islands’ seamstresses and tailors to sew up to 4,000 masks, as part of an initial batch, to serve essential workers.

“There was a request that was made to assist in sort of beefing up the stocks of masks, based on the global shortages that we’ve all been feeling for quite some time, because frontline workers have started running out of some of these masks and everything else,” said Carolina Ferreira of the Red Cross.

“While we know that, obviously, the masks that are sewn are not necessarily hospital grade, they do assist in either offering some level of protection or, we have heard in some other jurisdictions, that people might be using them to make the N95 masks last a bit longer.”

More than 100 people have already answered the Red Cross’s call and Massive Media has stepped up through its CayMask platform to bring attention to the initiative.

Click to enlarge.

Massive Media had begun its own mask-making campaign behind the scenes, drawing motivation from colleagues in the Czech Republic who already understood the importance of sanitary measures to control the spread of COVID-19. In addition to hand washing and social distancing, face masks can reduce the risk of disease by capturing water droplets that carry the coronavirus.

The marketing company’s dedicated website, www.caymask.com, offers tutorials and sanitation tips for those interested in creating their own protective gear.

“We’ve been very hands-on from the start, but the entire intention is for this to become self-organising, self-operating as a community, and really just to facilitate efficiency and be a catalyst for these homemade masks,” said Massive Media’s co-founder Rich Dyer.

Once the CayMask team learned of the Red Cross campaign, their focus shifted to driving attention to the charity initiative.

“We then just pushed all of our resources, all of our promotion towards the Red Cross appeal,” Dyer said.

“Realistically, logistically, we need to service all of our frontline workers first. The quicker we can accomplish that, then the quicker we can expand this out to wider in the community.”

Members of the public who answered the Red Cross call have been categorised by skill set, to break up the tasks as appropriate, and a preferred mask pattern has been identified. Fabrication is expected to start soon.

The hard part for would-be mask makers, however, has been the availability of supplies. As many motivated community members have learned, individuals are not able to just pop over to a fabric shop to buy cotton material and elastic.

Jhon Mora, owner of Kite Surf Cayman, for example, is ready to rededicate his sewing equipment, typically used for kite repairs, to make masks for the general public. He is struggling to find elastic, however, so he has substituted it with hair ties for the moment. And while a fabric store has offered to donate material, it is unclear if the business can legally open its doors to provide that to him.

He estimates that he and a partner can sew around 10 masks an hour. Once they have the necessary supplies, the hope is to distribute the masks for free, to help community members when they are shopping and running essential errands.

“We see people making a business out of this. I don’t see it like that. I don’t think it’s right,” Mora said. “We just want to make sure people have access.”

For those participating in the Red Cross initiative, fabric to kickstart the campaign was purchased through government. Ferreira said the fabric is being pre-shrunk and sanitised, and patterns are being planned to allow for the most efficient use of material. Once the estimated 4,000 masks are complete, each should be good for five to 10 uses with the addition of replaceable filters.

The Caribbean Filtration Company has donated filter material to the Red Cross that will be inserted into each mask’s built-in pocket and replaced after each use.

The filtration company also announced the production of its own masks, designed to allow replacement filters and reuse as well.

“Our unique design includes two parts. The [first part] is the exterior of the mask that is made from a double layer of 100% cotton, which captures about 90% of large air droplets exhaled out,” a release reads.

“The second part [is] a filter insert, which is made using a nanotechnology media that helps capture approximately 52% of particles as small as 0.125 micrometres, roughly the size of the novel coronavirus.”

The company said it is currently stocked with enough materials to make 2,000 masks a week.

For the wider community, Massive Media’s Dyer sees mask-making as a morale booster – a way to keep people involved and active, even as they self-isolate at home.

“I think a lot of people are looking for how they can contribute. This kind of campaign is something practical we can do to aid the efforts against this pandemic. I think that’s why you’ve seen quite a good response rate,” Dyer said.

“It really gives people a sense of contribution, sense of purpose. I think it can make people feel a little bit better inside.”

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