Chris Riley pulls material that he will cut up to use as straps for masks he and others are making at Fabric Warehouse in Auburn on Monday morning. He and his brother want to make clear that the masks do not meet CDC standards but “are better than nothing” and have been welcomed by everyone they have encountered. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Last week, Chris and Tim Riley began selling sewing kits made of precut fabric, thread and elastic — enough to make 25 homemade medical masks.

The first 25 kits sold in 30 minutes. As of Sunday night, the pair had made enough for 14,000 masks.

The Riley brothers, who own Fabric Warehouse in Auburn, had seen the reports, particularly from surrounding states, of severe mask shortages that are only expected to get worse.

Tim Riley said Monday that they’ve been telling customers to keep a few for family and offer the rest to their local fire department, area nursing homes or other places in need.

“We got a call yesterday from a company that owns nursing homes and they’re desperate,” Riley said. “It’s all we’re doing.”

Someone called Fabric Warehouse on Monday asking for 1,000 kits, enough to make 25,000 masks.

Demand for the kits is coming from the health care industry too, even as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against the use of homemade masks.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said Monday that the state is not advising medical providers to use donated homemade masks and that people should be aware that homemade masks have not gone through the same safety tests as masks worn by first responders and medical providers.

“Fabric available in the community has not undergone such testing,” he said. “Therefore, there is no way to know which, if any, fabrics will provide actual protection.”

Riley said Fabric Warehouse heard from a local surgeon who told him he can’t use the masks because they’re not the standard N95 respirator used widely by medical professionals. But, Riley said he has been told that medical staff have been using homemade masks to supplement the standard N95 mask.

“If you walk into a hospital or doctor’s office right now and they don’t have masks, what are they going to use? Anything they can,” he said.

The masks that come from the kits have a dual-layer of cotton fabric that Riley believes will still work to trap droplets that may contain the virus. They’re also washable and reusable, he said.

Chris RIley removes fabric from a box he just brought back from Allen Manufacturing that cut the material for his company. He and his brother have been working with one employee at a time who come into their business, Fabric Warehouse in Auburn, where they are making masks that he wants to make clear they do not meet CDC standards but “are better than nothing” and welcomed by everyone they have encountered. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The Fabric Warehouse website stipulates that the masks are not “N95 rated, and do not contain a separate filter media,” although they are working on masks that do.

Kate Carlisle, director of public relations and community affairs for Central Maine Healthcare, confirmed Monday that fabric masks can be used to extend the life of N95 respirators.

“We’ve had a number of local stitchers and sewists offer to make fabric masks for us, which could be worn over the N95 respirators, thus extending the life of the respirator and helping us to conserve resources,” she said.

Carlisle added that CMHC will soon have a webpage set up to inform the public of areas of need.

Meanwhile, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center spokesman Jason Gould said Monday that the hospital has an adequate supply of masks and gloves to meet its current needs, and that they are “able to accept donations of FDA-approved, medical-grade masks and gloves at any time.”

At Fabric Warehouse, Riley said the effort is not intended to make a profit, but that they are trying to keep an employee on staff while their doors are closed to the public. The mask kits are listed for $14.98, which he said covers expenses and “keeps the lights on” for the business.

“The outpouring has been remarkable,” he said.

By mid-day Friday, demand had reached the point that the Riley’s couldn’t take it on alone, so they partnered with Allen Manufacturing in Lewiston.

The Rileys aren’t alone, either.

Cheryl Haggerty, of Haggerty Realty in Lisbon Falls, said Monday she’s also in the process of creating medical masks, based on online recommendations from doctors and nurses in New England “who are desperate.”

She’s been collecting re-usable shopping bags made out of nonwoven polypropylene, which comes from the non-waterproof bags. She’s washing them and then cutting two squares to be sewn together, adding a cotton layer in between.

Haggerty said she was up until 3 a.m. Sunday sewing.

“I have very deep concerns about what’s happening,” she said. “I’m really concerned that we’re going to lose some medical workers to sickness or death.”

But while homemade masks are being used in place of medical-grade masks in the face of a shortage, the CDC is reminding the public that the best way to avoid COVID-19 is by practicing social distancing.

“The primary medical role of masks is to reduce the chance that people who are ill can spread a virus by breathing or coughing on others,” Long said Monday. “Maine people should not expect homemade masks to serve as adequate protection against getting a virus. A mask is not a substitute for proper virus control through physical distancing.”

Staff Writer Kathryn Skelton also contributed to this story. 

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