Last weekend, a Facebook group called “Sewing Face Masks for San Antonio” started with a handful of people joining forces to “serve the medical community during COVID-19.” Members swapped tips, asked questions, and shared photos of their handmade face masks in the group. In seven days, membership ballooned to nearly 600.

As hospitals assess their supply of masks and other protective equipment, volunteers equipped with sewing machines and cotton fabric are trying to help. In San Antonio, hundreds have taken it upon themselves to make face masks or at least donate materials to craftier neighbors.

For now, however, large hospital systems in the San Antonio area have said they are unable to accept homemade masks.

Though University Health System (UHS) spokeswoman Elizabeth Allen said its hospitals were not accepting donated masks, she said that they were grateful for the community response.

“At this time, we do not have a shortage of supplies,” the system said in a statement Tuesday. “However, we are monitoring usage very carefully to assure consistent and appropriate use of all personal protective equipment.”

Other hospital systems in Bexar County also have said they are not able to accept donated masks.

“We are grateful and humbled to see the community’s readiness to support those on the frontlines of this pandemic,” the Baptist Health System said in a statement. “In order to protect patients, staff and the community, we are investigating the efficacy of using homemade masks in the hospital setting. When there is guidance from the CDC, we will reach out to the community with instructions on how these should be made to best protect patients and caregivers.”

UT Health Physicians, the medical practice of UT Health San Antonio, said the home-sewn masks “do not meet the standard requirements for clinical care.” The CDC states that homemade masks can be used as a last resort, and recommends those be used in conjunction with a face shield.

“It should not be implied to the public that UT Health Physicians supports the use of any equipment that is less than the standard in clinical care,” the practice said in a prepared statement. “In fact, it might even be said that it would be a disservice to the public to advance the perception that cloth masks are used within any of the clinical practice sites of UT Health San Antonio.”

Methodist Healthcare is storing donations from previously delivered homemade masks “in the event they are approved for future use,” said Cheri Love-Moceri, director of corporate communications.

“While we have the supplies and equipment we need at this time, we are doing everything possible to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, face shields, and gowns,” she said. “We have also implemented protocols recommended by the CDC to conserve those items.”

CHRISTUS Health did not respond to questions about accepting donated homemade masks.

A CT and radiology technician at a local emergency room, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the facility still has PPE. But as most places, the emergency room doesn’t know when its next shipment of face masks will arrive.

“We definitely are on short demand,” the technician said. “From what I’m getting, what we have right now is what we have and we have to hold onto it until the next shipment.”

Felishia Powell, a program coordinator at Hemisfair, has been printing plastic face shield frames to be donated to health care workers. Powell worked closely with two local 3D print designers to fine-tune the face shield design and has made more than 40 since Saturday.

Powell uses a kind of plastic that can be sterilized with UV light, and the frame is designed so a new plastic sheet can be attached when necessary. She fields requests for face shields from health care facilities constantly, she said.

Felishia Powell, Hemisfair program coordinator, fits a plastic shield onto a medical shield frame created by a 3D printer in the Maker’s Space at Hemisfair. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Every day, I drop them off” to different health care facilities that ask for them, she said. “The need is unreal and locally, obviously there’s a need here but nationally, there’s a supply shortage. … I don’t have a huge opinion of the severity of the situation; the only thing I’m certain about is we’re low on PPE and doctors and workers need them.”

UHS said it would accept new, unused masks still in the manufacturers packaging as donations. Those can be donated to the UHS Foundation (call 210-358-9860 for details). Methodist Healthcare also will accept donations of approved face masks, face shields, and other PPE from hardware stores, schools, or other sources.

UT Health finished a donation drive for PPE earlier this week and was able to collect more masks, said drive organizer Jennifer Sharpe Potter, who also serves as a psychiatry professor and vice dean of research in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “We can feel the city wanting to make sure our providers are ready to go.”

Even if hospitals aren’t accepting homemade masks, they can be used by people outside of a medical setting, offering reassurance for those going out in public.

Candace Schwab of Schertz was one of the people who joined the Facebook mask-sewing group. Schwab made 47 masks using supplies she already had in storage and mailed half of them out to friends and family members who asked her for some.

“Everybody knows somebody in the medical profession,” she said. “We are all inspired to do [something].”

By day, Mandy Subia works as a data analyst for USAA. But after hours, she has been pulling out her sewing machine – typically used to craft Disney-themed ears – to make face masks.

“A lot of us are at home, and it gives us something to do,” said Subia, who also joined the Facebook group.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.