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Making respirator covers for health care workers: who’s making them and why
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Northeast Georgia Health System employee Brenda Jones sits at a sewing machine Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at the NGHS Corporate Plaza helping make face masks for in case the need arises. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set out guidelines for mask usage during the COVID-19 crisis, including what to do when no masks are available. One of the recommendations, as “a last resort,” is homemade masks, as their ability to protect health care workers is unknown. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Northeast Georgia Health System employees normally working directly with patients have found a new job in the battle against COVID-19 — making covers for N95 respirators.

A couple of areas in the system’s Corporate Plaza offices in Oakwood have been converted into basically an assembly line producing disposable covers for reusable respirators, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, including large and small particles.

“The covers will help extend the life of the respirators,” said Michelle Zimmerman, spokeswoman for Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton, who is helping to coordinate the effort.

Working with 1,200 pounds of donated fabric, the employees are cutting and using patterns, with the help of sewing machines, to make the covers.

Some 32 employees are helping with the work.

Some of the employees are athletic trainers who work in the now-closed schools, “so this is a perfect opportunity, right there,” Zimmerman said.

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Northeast Georgia Health System employees sew face masks Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at the NGHS Corporate Plaza in case there is a need for the homemade masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set out guidelines for mask usage during the COVID-19 crisis, including what to do when no masks are available. - photo by Scott Rogers

Kim Stuckey, a secretary in outpatient rehabilitation who can’t work her regular job as outpatient clinics are closed, is helping with sewing, including training folks to sew.

“They’re desperately needed,” she said of the mask covers.

As for hospital staffing during the health crisis, “we are continually evaluating how we will optimize staffing as this pandemic continues to evolve,” said Luisa Gutman, NGHS chief human resources officer.

“Like most health systems across the nation, we’re seeing less patients due to postponing elective surgeries and pausing many other non-essential services. We’ve adjusted staffing to meet the current demand.”

Gutman added: “Some employees have the option and ability to work from home. Others are being asked to be flexible with schedules, and we offer several options to help them find other roles to aid our response.”

Some of those options include signing up for the “resource pool,” which tries to place employees in tasks across the system, such as sewing the covers. The pool has about 180 people, Gutman said.

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Northeast Georgia Health System employee Brenda Jones sits at a sewing machine Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at the NGHS Corporate Plaza helping make face masks for in case the need arises. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set out guidelines for mask usage during the COVID-19 crisis, including what to do when no masks are available. - photo by Scott Rogers

People in the community also are seeking to help with mask making, including a couple of groups making the covers.

“The response has been so fantastic,” said Lacherisa Prairie, value analysis manager with the health system, who is helping in the effort. “It’s just been overwhelming. I go home every night astonished.”

Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, who heads Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Infection Prevention & Control Committee, said the health system is “focused on finding alternative solutions to our traditional rectangular surgical masks.”

“We have more of a supply of (respirators) than we do surgical masks,” NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said. 

Surgical masks aren’t “considered respiratory protection,” but they do provide the wearer “protection against large droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids” and protect “the patient from the wearer’s respiratory emissions,” according to the CDC.

“We would rather any sewn surgical masks be four-ply and made of a denser material. We’re researching patterns and materials to meet our infection prevention standards, and we’ll share that info with the community as soon as we have it,” Mannepalli said.

“We know everyone is eager to help, and we want their help,” she added. “We just want to be sure we’re giving them clear direction so we don’t waste time and material.”

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