Editor’s note: On April 3, Gov. Tom Wolf asked that all Pennsylvanians wear face masks when leaving home. Later on Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump shared new CDC guidance recommending cloth masks in public for everyone.

The state and CDC say surgical masks and N95 respirator masks should still be reserved for healthcare workers or patients in healthcare settings. Homemade masks, paper masks or even bandanas and scarves can be used by the general public in addition to social distancing. Cloth masks should be washed after each use.

Amid national shortages of personal protective equipment [PPE] due to COVID-19, many people have felt compelled to make essential supplies — particularly face masks. National retailer JOANN Fabric and Craft Stores is providing resources for volunteers to make masks to donate to hospitals; fashion designers are switching from sewing couture to sewing face masks; and local do-gooders with sewing machines and skills have taken up their needles and thread. 

But how effective are homemade masks for protecting against the coronavirus? According to health experts, not very.

“A handmade cloth mask or bandana, or gown, while a fantastic gesture to support our frontline responders and healthcare workers, likely will not provide the needed level of protection against COVID-19,” wrote Nate Wardle, the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s [DOH] press secretary, in an email to PublicSource.

The best way to help others is by staying home, Wardle wrote. Other helpful actions include giving blood and donating to food banks

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], homemade masks are not considered PPE and they should only be used as a last resort when caring for COVID-19 patients, as their protective ability is unknown. The CDC also recommends using homemade face masks in combination with a full face shield that covers the entire front and sides of the face.

Yet at least one Pennsylvania hospital network is embracing the donations. On March 21, St. Luke’s University Health Network, of Bethlehem, Pa., posted a call for donations on its website. Among the items it requested were surgical masks, goggles, N95 masks — and materials to make its own masks. 

“We are accepting donations of fabrics for making our own masks, including cotton, denim, duck cloth, canvas, twill, silk or other tight woven fabric, as well as elastic or rubber bands,” its website says.

Wardle said DOH has a supply of N95 masks and other PPE, “but those supplies are not infinite,” he noted. He said the federal government is working to distribute masks from its storage, and DOH is partnering with companies and other industries, like the mining industry, to try to ensure the state has enough PPE for its first responders and healthcare workers.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines.  Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

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Juliette Rihl reports on criminal justice, public safety and mental health for PublicSource. Her 2020 series on how court debt impacts low-income Allegheny County residents prompted the county to join...