Health officials are skeptical of homemade medical masks - but they could become necessary

Mar 20, 2020

With a national shortage of face masks being reported healthcare workers are calling for donations of N95 protective masks - the same masks that are often used for construction.

But some efforts are already underway to create home-made masks.

Lana Ivanitskaya is a professor in the school of health sciences at Central Michigan University. She said she’s working with peers to put together instructions for home-made masks.

“If you have to go into public spaces then wearing a mask is going to give you an additional degree of protection.”

Ivanitskaya said she believes if the general public has home-made masks they’re more likely to donate official N95 masks to the healthcare workers who need them.

She said she wants to be clear that she doesn’t think the masks should be for healthcare workers. Currently, she said she is experimenting with some home-made designs for the general public.

“At this time I’m suggesting we make home-made masks for ourselves and then give up standardized masks made in factories to healthcare workers.”

Ivanitskaya said she expects to release blueprints for homemade masks in the next few days.

But some are still skeptical of these homemade masks.

Christopher Friese is a professor of nursing and health management at the University of Michigan. He said homemade masks are well-intended, but probably not much good.

“We don’t have much evidence to suggest that homemade masks will do much to protect either health care workers or the general public.”

Ivanitskaya pointed to a 2013 study that found homemade masks should only be considered as a last resort but were better than no protection at all.

The Centers for Disease Control has also released guidance that if no more official medical masks are available, hospital workers may consider using a bandana or a scarf as a last resort.

According to reporting from Michigan Radio, healthcare workers at the Henry Ford Health System have already begun brainstorming alternatives to official N95 masks to use if there is a shortage.

Friese said he has called on the CDC to offer clearer guidance on what can be used for makeshift masks.

“Because these materials are all very different. The key for the coronavirus is to make sure whatever respiratory protection we use can filter out the particles that can live in the air that can transmit this virus.”

Hospital officials we spoke to said they are not able to use homemade masks at this time.

Desiree Worthington is with Munson Healthcare Foundations. She said there are state guidelines that restrict the kind of protective gear that can be used.

“At this point we do not have the regulatory clearance to use home-made items such as masks or gowns. If and when we receive that clearance we will make sure that the public will know what they can do to help.”

Worthington said the Michigan Health and Hospital Association is already reaching out to businesses and schools in the state that might have the kind of masks that can be used in hospitals.

A spokesperson for McLaren Central Michigan said the hospital has received several donations of medical masks. The spokesperson said the hospital is monitoring its supplies and are going through “way more than normal.”