Armed with her sewing machine, Sandy Hoffner is waging war on the coronavirus.
The Yankton woman has led an army of local volunteers who are creating medical masks supplementing the supply at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital (ASHH).
Hoffner literally views the nation at war with the COVID-19 pandemic. She used the analogy of Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of women who performed manufacturing work in the defense factories during World War II.
“I may not be Rosie the Riveter, but I am Sandy the (Seamstress)!” Hoffner said, pointing to her sewing machine that has been used for decades.
Hoffner’s effort didn’t initially target ASHH or the Avera Health system. Instead, it started as an outreach to help Yankton resident Cheryl Winter, a friend whose daughter works as a doctor on the West Coast.
“Cheryl told me how (her daughter) had gone the entire day wearing just one mask,” Hoffner said.
Hoffner, Winter and Debbie Bailey decided to do something, even if it was a relatively small gesture.
“(We) started making masks 10 days ago for my daughter who is a physician in Santa Clara, California,” Winter said. “They, like many other hospitals across the country, are facing significant shortages of protective gear and, in particular, masks.”
The women created and shipped out 30 masks, intended to provide additional inventory and not replace masks already in stock, Winter said.
“The masks we made (for California) cannot be worn in surgery but can be worn over another mask with a filter to extend longevity during patient care,” she said.
Hoffner is no stranger to sewing and quilting, and she believed the mask project was a natural use of her time and talents.
“I’ve sewn for years, and I’ve quilted since I retired from teaching. I’m in the quilters’ guild (in Yankton),” she said. “When we started this project, it intrigued me how many videos there were of making masks. I really got into it.”
Winter’s daughter was grateful for the shipment of 30 masks, and the effort caught the attention of ASHH, which had launched its own mask-making drive.
“We shifted gears and are now making masks for Avera,” Hoffner said. “We waited for some instructions from Avera in order to make masks matching their specific requirements. I communicated with my quilt guild for them to join us.”
Hoffner has also produced a video found on her Facebook page.
“It goes a lot faster for someone like me who does a lot of sewing. It’s almost like factory work — I work on six or seven at a time. I get them done in little batches,” she said.
“I have one of these Avera masks done in 20 minutes. If you’re new to the process, it could take a little longer. This is a great opportunity to teach kids to sew and to help them. These (masks) aren’t judged by a teacher or going to the state fair. The point is to do the job right and to get it done.”
The Avera Faith and Community Engage program (F.A.C.E.) seeks volunteers to help craft cloth face masks for use in hospitals and clinics. The guidelines, instructions, materials and patterns to do this are included on the Avera website.
ASHH started receiving inquiries from people who wanted to help with the mask production, according to Sheila Kuchta, executive director of the Avera Sacred Heart Foundation.
“As soon as people from across the country began posting pictures about making masks on Facebook, we started getting questions from people in our region,” she said. “We’ve received countless calls and messages from all over the Avera footprint — especially in and around the Yankton community.”
Avera took up the offers and launched a program for its health system that would ensure the masks’ quality and safety.
“Once we began receiving calls, Avera staff worked to approve a pattern that they felt offered the best protection for staff and patients that might be utilizing them,” Kuchta said.
Plans are also being developed to use the homemade masks for palliative and hospice care patients — as well as their caregivers at home — during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The community and regional support for the masks and other protective gear has come in all forms, Kuchta said.
“The outpouring of generosity has been amazing. We’ve had donations of fabric, masks, PPE (personal protective equipment) and money to support the work we’re doing,” she said. “Specifically, we’ve had donations of fabric from Four Seasons Fabrics and other individuals. Groups like Union, Clay & Yankton County 4-H and Quilter’s Guilds are sewing masks.”
In addition, scores of volunteers have stepped forward to make the masks, Kuchta said.
“Some of our faithful hospital volunteers, like Deanna Branaugh and Dianne Wubben, are making masks, along with dozens of wonderful people throughout our community,” she said.
Branaugh has worked with several volunteer efforts at the hospital. However, the social-distancing restrictions with COVID-19 have temporarily halted contact with staff, patients and other volunteers.
“Making masks has provided (those of us who sew) an opportunity to help our community during the coronavirus,” she said. “At a time when I can’t volunteer in the community or bake goodies for friends or neighbors, sewing has been therapeutic for me.”
The project has launched a search for innovative ways to make the masks, Branaugh said.
“It’s been interesting to share patterns to find not only the most efficient pattern but also the most effective mask for our health care workers and friends,” she said. “(I’m) hoping the masks will serve their purpose as they are needed.”
The masks have already started arriving at ASHH, Kuchta said.
“The first wave of drop-offs started this week,” she said. “We have a drop-off box just inside the front hospital vestibule open from early morning until 7:30 p.m. We are happy to make other arrangements for drop-offs or pickups.”
The Avera website contains a caution for those who have completed a batch of masks — considered 25 — ready for usage.
“We ask that you not go into the facility to deliver the masks,” the site said. “The facility contact person will explain the process to drop them off. They will ask for your name, and total masks you have delivered.”
In the wake of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the health care effort must be prepared for a long-term demand on its services and supplies, Kuchta said.
“There’s a huge demand across the country for personal protection equipment,” she said. “Avera has been proactive about conserving and securing PPE, but without knowing how long this (outbreak) may last, we want to do as much as we can to protect our employees, patients and residents.”
The business community and others have stepped forward in other ways, Kuchta said.
“In that effort, we’ve had the incredible help of businesses like Cimpl’s, M-Tron, and Mount Marty College,” she said. “They have gifted us with boxes of new gloves, gowns and N95 masks. We’re so grateful to receive these supplies we can add to our inventory.”
In addition, several businesses have asked about donating meals to the hospital staff, Kuchta said.
“We appreciate this show of support and ask that donations such as this be coordinated through the Foundation Office because we have some specific guidelines to ensure the ultimate protection for staff,” she added.
The COVID-19 pandemic hits home for Hoffner, not only because of the disease’s presence locally but also because she has sons living in the Seattle and Phoenix areas.
For Hoffner, making masks provided emotional release in dealing with an enemy that can’t be seen but can strike anyone, anywhere.
“For me, it’s my way of fighting this thing, this coronavirus,” she said. “It just takes the stress away because I’m doing something on offense and I have a way of giving life to others. It’s been a gratifying thing for me.”
Interested persons can call the foundation office at (605) 668-8310 to make arrangements or learn more information about the mask program.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.