ARLINGTON, Virginia — Something extremely valuable was left behind in the nurses’ offices of shuttered Virginia schools: Personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns and hand sanitizer.
Bernadette Berset, a nurse at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, hoped there was a way to get the medical supplies they no longer needed to health care workers who desperately did.
“The media is saying how direly in short supply all of this equipment is. So I reached out to Arlington Health Department and they responded,” she said. “(They) told me there’s a way we can drop off supplies (while) social distancing.”
With the help of Amber Dise, the Arlington Diocese’s school health coordinator, Berset reached out to other diocesan school nurses. Several across the diocese — including St. Anthony of Padua School in Falls Church, Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna, St. Mary Basilica School in Alexandria, St. Agnes School in Arlington and St. Theresa School in Ashburn — felt they could spare some of their supplies.
Berset estimates together they have about 400 to 500 surgical masks, less than 100 protective gowns as well as gloves and hand sanitizer.
“As school nurses, we always try to find a way we can contribute,” said Berset. “I know I speak for my colleagues in that we’re all very, very sad we’re out of the school setting, we miss our students. So I’m just happy to be able to do something in a very small way.”
Arlington’s Marymount University Malek School of Health Professions donated goggles, surgical masks, isolation gowns and full-body suits to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. “I was quite literally brought to tears by the generosity and support shown by the Marymount team,” said Alicia Marconi, a Marymount adjunct lab instructor and a nurse at Virginia Hospital Center.
“My ICU co-workers and I were so appreciative of the contribution in this time of significantly increased stress, many unknowns and continued supply shortages,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.
Crafters are finding ways to help ease the personal protective equipment shortage by sewing cloth face masks. During the Iraq War, longtime seamstress Fran Davenport made quilts for military wives who were caring for newborns as their husbands served overseas. She sees sewing masks in a time of global pandemic as another way of using her talents to serve people in need.
“I’ve got this gift of enjoying sewing and it’s just a way I can help others and share a little love and joy,” she said.
Davenport is a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna and part of the Our Lady’s Quilters and Prayer Shawl Ministry. Irene Zaso, parish communications director, is taking the masks the members make and giving them to parishioners in the medical field who have requested them. So far, masks have been given to Capital Area Pediatrics, Virginia Cancer Specialists and Kensington Falls Church Senior Living.
Davenport watched YouTube videos to find mask patterns, and then began to adapt them to her materials and skills. She used quilting fabric she had, and unable to find elastic, she asked her husband to cut ribbons for mask ties. Though she didn’t have floral wire, she subbed in something else she had on hand.
“I’m using twist ties, like you would have from your bread wrappers, for the nose piece because I read on the internet that it’s better for health care workers to try to keep the mask closer to their face,” she said.
Fellow Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioner Blanca Munguia has been leaving mask-making kits in a basket outside her sewing school, the Heartfelt Workshop in Vienna. She herself has made masks out of brightly patterned cotton fabric and used FaceTime with her students to walk them through the process, too.
“It’s been so rewarding to know that something that was a hobby can be used now in this kind of situation,” she said.
Munguia knows the homemade masks are not as effective in preventing the spread of disease as N95 respirators, which contour to the wearer’s face to effectively filter airborne particles. Some nurses and doctors wear the cloth masks on top of the N95s, which they may need to reuse or wear all day.
But Munguia plans to keep making them as long as medical professionals are requesting them.
“We are making masks hoping they don’t need them. We hope that the N95s can arrive,” she said. “But in this moment, if this is all we can do, then let’s sew.”
Maraist is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.