NPR News for Central and Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How researchers worked to create a crowdsourcing system for masks during pandemic

Nino Maghradze

The defining symbol of the coronavirus pandemic may be the mask.

Hospitals ran out of basic protective gear, including masks, early into the pandemic. A medical researcher and a fashion professor put their heads together to figure out what went wrong.

“I remember thinking that this is a monument to pandemic unpreparedness," said Lana Ivanitskaya, a Central Michigan University health researcher. She said at first, hospitals were not sure whether masks were even effective.

People first turned to organic weaves like cotton, she said. But that didn’t work out. Turns out, the weave was less effective because it’s symmetrical, and that lets virus particles in more easily. In fact, during the Spanish Flu in 1918, people made their own masks and turned to cotton first.

“In 2020, people chose woven materials that were also cotton-based," Ivanitskaya said. "In some ways, we can say people were still thinking along the lines of the 20th century.”

People and hospitals didn’t know what to do. Ivanitskaya said some hospitals suggested using any material, some specifically said non-woven... some said to make ear loops, others said to just tie them back.

“We were all confused," she said.

It wasn’t at all clear.

“There were calls for action early on to identify multiple places to source masks. But we could not find no very specific guidance on what exactly—what specifications—organizations use," she said.

Five months into the pandemic, Ivanitskaya and a colleague created a Google Doc to crowdsource information on how to make effective masks. They discovered that polypropylene—that's the synthetic fabric used in some rugs and pouches—was affordable and very effective for masks.

They also found, surprisingly, static electricity helps.

“On the way to Michigan from Stanford, the materials were charged because they were rubbed against the plastic of the Ziplock bags," she said. "Depending on how much rubbing occurred, they retained this electrostatic charge and their efficiency improved.”

As of this month, Ivanitskaya said the Google Doc on how to make masks was opened over six-thousand times. Publications like the New York Times and Washington Post refer to it when giving guidance to their readers, she said.

Her partner in the research was an apparel professor at Washington State University Armine Ghalachyan. She said this type of crowdsourcing could be used for the future.

“We have all this information. But when we are in a similar situation in the future—we hope we won’t be, but you know, pandemics happen or other emergencies, you know?--we will have a tried out method of crowdsourcing projects from the general public," Ghalachyan said.

By now, many people have stopped masking. The Centers for Disease Control now only recommends masking when coronavirus community levels are high. With the Christmas season, masking might become prevalent again. If it is, make some new masks for the family and you may want to rub them on a plastic bag.

Ben Jodway is an intern, serving as a reporter for WCMU Public Media and the Pioneer in Big Rapids. He has covered Indigenous communities and political extremism in Michigan.