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Nevada County volunteer team makes masks during COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Durkin
Special to The Union

By the numbers

As of April 8

Number of COVID-19 cases in Nevada County: 34

Number in western county: 10

Number in eastern county: 24

Number of deaths: 1

Learn more at http://www.theunion.com/coronavirus

While the COVID-19 pandemic is raging, major corporations are retooling for mass production of medical-grade masks.

Meanwhile, where the thread meets the fabric, private Nevada County residents have already been making — and donating — hundreds of masks to hospitals, first responders, essential workers and high-risk people. So far, more than 1,000 masks have been distributed.

Nevada County Masks for COVID-19 on Facebook was up and running two days after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered people to go home and stay there.

“Hi peeps, I’m an ICU nurse at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital,” Jessica Lee Lusignan, R.N., posted on Facebook March 21. She showed a photograph of a homemade surgical mask.

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“Is anyone out there crafty with a sewing machine?” she asked.

Within a few hours, she had enough masks to take them to her shift at the ICU that night.

And the masks keep coming. It’s become a virtual, all-volunteer cottage industry with dozens of people sewing masks under the supervision of a woman who has never made a mask.

Lexis LaRue of Grass Valley connected with Lusignan on March 21. By the end of that weekend, LaRue had built a Facebook page and created a group called Nevada County Masks for COVID-19 (NC Masks).

Less than three weeks later, more than 800 people — mostly women — have joined the group. On April 7, the group passed the 1,000 mark of distributed masks.

The Facebook page has become an ever-growing treasure trove of the best information on how to make reusable, washable masks. These PPE (personal protective equipment) masks are suitable for non-clinical use in hospitals as well as for first responders, essential workers and high-risk individuals.

“We needed to make sure essential workers outside the hospital (gas station attendants, grocery store clerks, bankers, postal workers, etc.) were taken care of,” Lusignan wrote in a Tuesday Facebook private message.

LaRue calls Lusignan “our fearless and benevolent leader.”

Lusignan, in turn, credits LaRue: “Lexis has been pioneering, managing and troubleshooting it all with incredible organization and attention to detail.”

“It’s been amazing the way the community is giving back,” Laura Johnson Seeman reported. Seeman is the director of Mission Integration and Community Health for Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.

‘Rosie Riveters of sewing’

Working with LaRue, Seeman was instrumental in getting NC Masks approved for non-clinical use. “This is really helping save our medical-grade PPE for doctors and staff in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.”

Throughout the country, hospitals and clinics are experiencing a critical shortage of PPE gear.

LaRue is working with seven area hospitals. NC Masks has already fulfilled mask requests from Mercy San Juan and Sutter Auburn Faith hospitals.

“Rideout Hospital in Marysville is hurting pretty badly,” LaRue said. “They have not received any masks from us yet, and they have a staff of 400-500.”

Although people are heaping credit on her, LaRue is quick to credit everybody else.

Ann Mayo Hobbs; Manda Miel; Rebecca Seijas-Ball, CNRA; Paulette Gilbert; Jeanne Mosley; and Melissa Estes are LaRue’s team captains, managing production and delivery of masks.

“Some of our masked warriors are Gwen Fackrell, Debbie Campbell, Tiffany Nelson, Jalana Smith, and Beverly Dittburner. Every one of them are big producers,” LaRue said. “Gwen alone has done almost 300.”

Referring to the iconic factory worker from World War II, retired school principal and volunteer seamstress Karen Chizek of Nevada City observed, “We’re the Rosie Riveters of sewing.”

Additionally, B&C Hardware, O’Thrifts and Home Depot of Auburn, Hills Flat Lumber, Autometriks, Ben Franklin and SNMH Foundation have responded to LaRue’s no-fear cold calls asking for supplies and services.

“Nobody wants money,” LaRue emphasized. “Just fabrics.”

But any old fabric won’t do. Tightly woven rolls of 100%, high-thread count, woven cotton and merino wool are needed. Rolls of fabric can be cut to mask size by lasers to speed up production, she explained.

If anyone wants to volunteer to sew or donate materials, or request a mask, LaRue advised people to contact the team by posting on the Nevada County Masks for COVID-19 Facebook page.

Work at home

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Nevada County Masks for COVID-19 is that the work is being done remotely in individual homes.

“It’s funny, Jessica and I have never officially met and we’re already fast friends,” LaRue laughed.

“Severely immunocomprised” and sleeping only three hours a day, LaRue is a high-risk individual herself. She has managed this project primarily online and with phone calls from her mother’s home in Penn Valley.

On Tuesday, however, LaRue ventured out to deliver and pick up masks at B&C Hardware’s lumber counter in Grass Valley.

B&C, Ben Franklin, SNMH Foundation and True Value Hardware in Penn Valley are designated transfer stations for pick up and delivery of finished masks.

Armed with hand sanitizer and rocking a custom-fitted mask made by Fackrell, LaRue delivered masks to Hospitality House and domestic violence victims Tuesday.

“We greatly appreciate the Nevada County Masks for COVID-19 for identifying our shelter operations as an area of great need,” Ashley Quadros, development director for Hospitality House, said in an email.

Gilbert and Seijas-Ball were among the first to sign up for Nevada County Masks for COVID-19. Both are accomplished seamstresses. Their new and ever-improving designs and patterns meet or exceed CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines.

Gilbert has even made a detailed video demonstrating how to make a sturdy, reusable mask with a pocket for disposable filters. Throughout the NC Masks operation, sterile handling is the top priority. Finished masks are washed, dried and sealed in plastic bags for delivery.

LaRue said her ultimate goal is that NC Masks give masks to everyone who wants or needs them.

As Gilbert explained in her latest training video, “If we all wear a mask, we’re protecting each other.”

“Spread the love, not viruses,” LaRue urged. “We have sewing machines to loan. Tell everyone you know we’re building an army of volunteers.”

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada County. He may be reached at tdurkin@vfr.net or http://www.tomdurkin-media.net.


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