Staten Islanders Rally to Make Masks for Local Healthcare Workers
This story originally appeared on April 1, 2020, in The New York City Lens, a digital publication produced by students in the City Newsroom class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
More than 22,000 medical workers live on Staten Island, according to the New York State Comptroller in a 2018 report. Healthcare, in fact, is the largest category of private-sector employment on the island and, as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, Staten Islanders are rallying to help protect neighbors, friends, and family members who are treating more than 2,000 corona-positive patients. Staten Island currently has the third-highest infection rate of the five boroughs.
One thing those healthcare workers need is protective masks. Staten Islanders are doing what they can.
Staten Island currently has the third-highest infection rate of the five boroughs and just two hospitals, noted Alex Lutz, Director of Communications at Richmond University Medical Center, one of the two facilities. The other hospital is Staten Island University Hospital, which has two locations. “This is an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lutz said.
As the pandemic has gained steam, hospital officials, nurses, and doctors have used social media to tell their fellow Staten Islanders their needs. High on the list is personal protective equipment.
Lisa Signorile Zahakos took note. She founded the Facebook group, “Sew Away Corona,” which sews fabric masks and donates them to New York City hospitals, to get them protective equipment. Zahakos worked as a physician assistant before she had her twins. With four kids under four years old, she left her position last year. Still, Zahakos says she has a loved one in almost every hospital in the city.
“How do they expect this to ever go away if we don’t protect them?” she asked. “It’s my cousins in these hospitals, my family, my best friends. It really speaks to me. They are working 12-hour shifts and they are in hell. It’s the least we can do.”
So far, she says, her group has made more than 2,000 masks and has sent them to at least five hospitals in New York City. About half of the group, which currently has 1,300 members, is from Staten Island.
Twenty of those members are Broadway costume designers who have re-directed their skills into constructing masks. The designers use vacuum filters to create a mask with filtration similar to that of the N95 mask, the industry standard, which can filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.
Other members, Zahakos says, make simpler, inexpensive masks. Most of these are mask covers, meant to supplement the N95 masks that are getting re-used because of the shortage. Fabric masks alone cannot produce adequate filtration to protect healthcare professionals. Sewers make them out of bed sheets, pillowcases, old shirts, fleece blankets, and whatever other fabric may be lying around the house.
“The fabric mask goes over the N95 to extend the use of the N95,” Zahakos explained. “What’s going on in the hospitals is that they will get one N95 a week or one indefinitely — no more. You can imagine how unsanitary that is. They can put the fabric masks around the N95 and then wash the fabric masks when they get home.”
The “Sew Away Corona” Facebook group has a large variety of people in it. Some sewers are as young as 12; others are much older. “Some are your neighborhood grandma, a cute little Italian woman who makes them from curtains that she took down in her home,” she said. She estimates that sewers can make up to 25 masks a day.
The primary role of the Facebook group is to connect sewers with healthcare workers in need of masks. The group gets messages from doctors and nurses all over the city asking for supplies. Zahakos and her colleagues try to match each request with a sewer that can provide the number of masks needed right away.
In the future, Zahakos wants to get her hands on a material thrown away by hospitals every day. She says that the material that surgical instruments are wrapped in has incredible filtration abilities.
“Give me your garbage,” she said. “I need your garbage and I can help.”
Michael Perina, a father of four, is also working to create alternative protective equipment. He is the owner and founder of Assembyl 3D, a Staten Island 3D printing company. So far, he says he has helped create 1,000 face shields for Staten Island hospitals.
His 3D printed masks are “not the best solution,” Perina concedes, “but it is better than nothing.” His company can make about 250 shields a day. The plastic shields cover the entire face, and they do not filter like N95 masks, nor do they fully enclose the nose and mouth. The shields, however, give professionals another layer of protection and prevent them from touching their faces while at work.
Perina’s five-year-old son, Brycen, was the first child to get tested for the coronavirus on Staten Island. He was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit at Richmond University Hospital and hooked up to a ventilator earlier this month.
“While we were waiting for results, I couldn’t see him. He was quarantined with his mother,” he said. “I sat there, and I thought, ‘I need to do something now. Right now. I have machines and I have material, so I can actually help.’ The hospitals were packed already.”
Brycen tested negative for coronavirus. Instead, he had two other viruses in addition to pneumonia. He has since gone home, but Perina’s efforts have not slowed. He is considering purchasing more printers to increase productivity. He is also looking into creating a mold for the shields so that people would only need to pour the materials into the mold instead of printing shields on a 3D printer. In the future, he hopes to make 500 more shields a day.
While alternative masks are in development by people like Zahakos and Perina, standard N95 masks remain in high demand and short supply. A group of real estate professionals from Robert DeFalco real estate has organized efforts to bring more N95 masks to Staten Island hospitals. Through fundraising efforts and their Facebook group, “Corona virus — Staten Island Helping Hands,” the realtors say they have raised almost $10,000 and have donated more than 2,800 masks to local hospitals. Stephanie Orefice, a local realtor and one of the founders of the group, does not reveal what distributor she gets the masks from out of fear that people will buy them all if they knew where to get them.
As the “Helping Hands” Facebook group grew in numbers, nurses joined and shared their experiences with the community, according to Orefice. Some nurses described wearing garbage bags at work, having shipments of masks stolen from their doorsteps, and using scarves to cover their noses and mouths in the Emergency Room.
“After reading them, you feel helpless,” Orefice said. “It’s all over Facebook how desperate they are. You start to think, `how can I help these people. They deserve it.’”
In addition to raising money and purchasing the masks, the “Helping Hands” page has turned into a place where Staten Islanders can share ideas and learn about new ways to help from home. For example, after a number of healthcare workers said their skin was rubbed raw from wearing a mask for so many hours, and for so many days in a row, some members of the group have started to purchase headbands and then used hot glue to fix buttons to the sides. This way, healthcare workers can hook their masks onto the buttons instead of behind their ears.
“It breaks our hearts to see that they are doing this without masks or protection,” said Jimmy Samaha, a realtor and one of the group’s founders. “It’s basic humanity, it’s a community thing, and it’s all out of love.”
That sentiment rings true for Lutz, the Director of Communications at Richmond University Medical Center. “I have always been impressed with Staten Island, a real suburban community,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit group, and literally, your neighbor is guaranteed to know someone you know. Everyone knows each other, and that has fostered this cohesive mindset where everyone helps. Everyone.”