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Marlena Kaesler stands in her doorway with a mask that she has made herself, on March 29, 2020. She is now making hundreds of masks a week for community organizations that help people with disabilities.Pete Thorne

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on March 23 that all non-essential businesses would be closing in Ontario, Marlena Kaesler rushed to her local fabric store.

She needed more materials for the masks she was making in her effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19. In front of her in the unusually long checkout line, was a woman carrying rolls of cotton fabric.

“You must be an expert sewer,” joked Ms. Kaesler, who was buying just one roll. The woman replied no, that she was a hospital representative getting fabric for masks, gowns and other equipment that might be needed. Ms. Kaesler said her heart dropped.

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“I felt that there was a sense of urgency to it,” Ms. Kaesler said.

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She had seen how quickly the new coronavirus was spreading in Italy, she said, and knew she wanted to do something to help prevent the same outcome in Canada. She is a costume assistant for theatres with years of sewing experience, so she found a pattern online and made her first mask prototypes in her Toronto home. Now, she is making hundreds of masks a week for community organizations that help people with disabilities.

Across Canada, personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply. Some hospitals are limiting their front-line staff to one or two disposable masks a day, and family physicians are running low as well. In response, people have been trying to fill gaps with homemade gear.

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it recommends all Americans to wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, public health experts agree that healthy people should not try to get the disposable masks that are badly needed for hospitals and other health-care facilities. Studies show a homemade mask is better than none.

Taunton Mills nursing home staff are seen here wearing homemade masks.Handout

The Michael Garron Hospital Foundation in Toronto has started a campaign calling on people who can sew to help make 1,000 masks a week for discharged patients, visitors and vulnerable communities so that surgical masks can be reserved for health-care workers. Staff in some hospitals are putting handmade masks over their N95 respirators to help make them last longer.

Soon after Ms. Kaesler started sewing, Lee-Anne Moore-Thibert began organizing a sewing circle on Facebook in Durham Region, east of Toronto. Within one day, her group had 300 people. She renamed it Ontario Sews and split it into different regions across the province, but still it kept growing.

In normal times, Ms. Moore-Thibert is a managing partner of the paralegal firm Cochrane Moore LLP in Oshawa. This week, she expanded her sewing network, opening chapters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec. British Columbia is next. With the help of her administration team in Durham, the group, now called Canada Sews, organized teams, material allocation and drop-off locations in partnership with individual UPS stores to reduce face-to-face contact.

The groups are using two patterns shared by an international organization named Created for Crisis that were designed in accordance with CDC guidelines. However, the Canada Sews website also reminds people that the best way to prevent the spread is still through social distancing.

A member of the group Canada Sews makes masks to address the shortage of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.Handout

Organizations that want masks fill out a request form on the site and specify their needs. Ms. Moore-Thibert said orders have come from couriers, truck drivers, police, embalmers, nursing homes and First Nations. As of Wednesday, the group has made 1,600 masks and is up to 9,000 requests.

But not all people making protective gear are sewing: 3D printers are creating PPE as well.

Don Peterson, who has a business making 3D prototypes, said that after he put an offer to print equipment on Facebook, he heard from retirement homes, the Kingston General Hospital and homeless shelters. He is printing for Covenant House Toronto, a shelter for young people at risk where he once lived when he was younger.

On his 13 printers he is using designs that are being shared online among 3D printers. He said he has been able to make 150 masks and shields a day, and is working on increasing his count.

“It has made us a lot more open with ideas," he said of 3D print companies, which usually protect their designs. “It’s not really about being a hero, it’s about being an assistant. You can’t win unless we all try to help each other.”

Sheref Ibrahim, owner of the Link It Up electronics services stores, is also printing PPE. Mr. Ibrahim said he is attempting to get the products to those who have “fallen through the cracks,” such as retirement homes. He now has 15 volunteers helping.

With non-essential businesses closed, the next challenge will be to continue finding materials.

Canada Sews will receive end-of-line products from manufacturers. Individual sewers can order online from companies such as Birdie and Dot Fabrics in Edmonton, which have seen an uptick in sales. Some 3D printers will use whatever they have available.

Ms. Kaesler just got a new donation of materials, and is now getting help from people she has never met, working from a distance.

When she started making the masks, some of her friends thought she was overreacting to the crisis.

“The people who made fun of me for making the masks are now starting to send me messages apologizing and are asking for a mask,” she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says thousands of suppliers answered a federal call for companies that can make gear and commodities Canada needs to treat people with COVID-19. The government is putting up $2 billion to buy personal protective equipment for health workers and medical equipment such as ventilators.

The Canadian Press

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