The Congregational Church in Cumberland has launched a campaign to sew 1,000 homemade protective masks. Courtesy Congregational Church in Cumberland

CUMBERLAND — Concerned her friends were working in hospitals without a protective mask amid the coronavirus pandemic, Melody Pickett launched a church-based effort to sew homemade masks for local medical staff and first responders.

The Congregational Church in Cumberland has joined the country’s “100 Million Mask Challenge,” and Pickett and fellow congregants strive to make at least 1,000.

Medical personnel “are terrified,” she said. “I’m guessing … that they’d already started rationing (masks). So I said ‘this is unacceptable,’ and I handed her everything we had in our house of N95s.”

Personal protective equipment like N95 respirator face masks — considered to be very effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus — are in high demand. To beef up its short supply as the crisis unfolded in the U.S. earlier this year, the federal government aims to buy 600 million manufactured N95s, CNN reported last week.

In order to provide essential support to medical staff should N95 or medical-grade masks be unavailable, the Cumberland church is encouraging community members to sew masks, for distribution to MaineHealth – a not-for-profit group of health care organizations and providers.

“The beauty of your mask is that they can be laundered, disinfected, repackaged, and reused,” Pickett wrote in a letter co-penned by fellow congregants Sally Bancroft and Jane Swan. “We are inviting everyone who is able to sew to make a mask as a way to show love and support for the many medical personnel who are on the front lines making sacrifices on behalf of all of us.”

MaineHealth calls for the masks to be made with two or more layers of 100% tightly-woven cotton, and with no elastic ties or metal. Fabric should be washed before sewing.

Pickett can be reached at 829-3254 or [email protected] for more information, such as mask patterns that MaineHealth desires.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Protection, cautioned in a recent press conference that cloth face coverings are “not so much masks, as they are cloth barriers that individuals might be able to wear.”

Such coverings “are not necessarily designed to protect you; what they are designed to do is protect other people from you,” Shah said. “… People who do not yet have symptoms of COVID-19 can quite readily pass it from one person to another. … The cloth face coverings are designed to minimize the chance that someone who doesn’t have symptoms could transmit it to someone else.”

They should be worn when people have to go somewhere that others outside their home are going to be, such as the grocery store, Shah noted. “These masks, these face coverings, are not in place of physical distancing requirements (of standing 6 feet from one another), they are in addition.”

Nearly 200 masks had been completed as of April 13. Donations can be placed in a plastic bag and left in a drop box outside the 282 Main St. church. The box is set outside the church from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer and former head of the Maine CDC, said in an email that MaineHealth is “incredibly touched by these efforts and … grateful for the donations.”

“At this point, we are able to mask all of our health care team members in standard surgical masks, but we know with the fluctuation in the supplies, that it is prudent for us to have a backup supply,” she wrote. “Additionally, although we are closed to visitors, they are occasionally allowed, and some of them may want to wear a mask, even if it is not indicated, in which case these may be appropriate.

“Our health team members and I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support by our communities.”

Comments are not available on this story.