DENVER — When Dr. Jillian Ciocchetti, a surgeon at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, learned last month that hospital staff would be allowed to wear cloth scrub caps again, she texted her family with a request: Could they make her one?
Three hours later, her mother brought her a freshly-sewn cap.
Then her family got another idea: What if they started making cloth masks?
Ciocchetti wasn't sure if the hospital would approve. But as the need for more personal protective equipment only worsened, her bosses at SCL Health — which operates Saint Joseph and seven other hospitals and dozens of clinics across Colorado — were interested.
Ciocchetti teamed with Dr. Kelly McMullen, a family medicine physician at Saint Joseph, and called their effort Operation We Can Sew It. SCL Health last week approved their mask design, which includes a pocket for autoclave paper, a high-grade filtration material.
Cloth masks aren't as effective as N95 respirator masks or standard surgical masks, both of which filter out more than 90% of particles, Ciocchetti said. Still, Ciocchetti and McMullen estimated their masks filter out about 70% of particles.
"They're not perfect," Ciocchetti said, "but they're better than nothing."
And they've been able to produce thousands of masks, quickly, by providing volunteers with a standardized design and allowing them to use fabric already in their home. By Thursday, a little more than two weeks after they started, Operation We Can Sew It had delivered 5,700 masks to 20 different facilities across Denver.
Their help represents only a fraction of the demand for masks in the state — Gov. Jared Polis this week said officials are trying to get more than two million N95 respirator masks delivered here.
But the upstart Operation We Can Sew It is making an impact and just getting started. SCL Health officials not only approved their mask design — they asked the group if they could produce 40,000 masks per month, until the coronavirus crisis is over.
The operation has about 2,500 volunteers helping sew the masks, but they hope to get about 2,000 more to help combat the shrinking supply of personal protective equipment. Volunteers are required to sign up and provide an email address, in case changes are made to the design. But anyone with sewing experience is encouraged to help.
"Clearly, people are sitting at home, wanting to do something to help, and this is a really tangible way," Ciocchetti said.
The need for more protective equipment comes as the strain on healthcare workers grows — from concerns over contracting the coronavirus to treating COVID-19 patients and to the normal caseload of patients who don't have the virus.
"This has been unlike anything I've ever been through, or even heard about people going through," McMullen said. "The worst thing as a healthcare provider is thinking, I could be carrying this and I could be getting somebody sick when I'm examining them."
And if their patients have coronavirus, doctors and nurses can't simply stay six feet away, the recommended social distancing measure.
"We're used to being able to do everything for every patient in this country," Ciocchetti said. "So the psychological toll on the healthcare workers will be huge, especially in the coming weeks. this way of supporting everybody is a bright ray of sunshine in an otherwise very difficult time right now."
Want to help? Go to the Operation We Can Sew It website and sign up.