Fulton’s Rita Chamblee has always loved sewing. She calls the small workshop near her house – a space roughly the size of a large bedroom or small living area – her “happy place.” It’s where she makes things.

“I have done curtains and bedspreads and stuff,” she said. “I love the creativity of it. I love to do things and give them to people – to help them appreciate homemade items … I can come out here and sew, and I just make whatever someone says they want.”

Since mid-March, just as businesses began closing their doors and people started keeping their distance from each other, that’s been masks. Lots of masks.

Over the past several weeks, the retired nurse has turned her longtime love of sewing into something potentially lifesaving. She’s created hundreds of cloth masks. Most, she’s given away to medical facilities, nursing homes, doctor’s offices, and friends. She’ll give them away to people she knows can’t afford them, just to promote safety.

“I’ve passed out a lot [of masks],” she said from a seat at her sewing table. A large worktable near the entranceway holds tools and pieces of scrap fabric. Near one edge is a pile of completed masks waiting to be given away or sold.

She’s got the process down: cut, press, attach ear pieces, sew, turn, trim. One mask takes about 10 minutes to complete, and Chamblee averages around 70 masks in the five-hour blocks she allots for the process.

She’s a believer in the importance of masks, even simple DIY ones.

“If I go into a store … I wear a mask,” she said, then laughed. “And, yeah, they look at me funny sometimes.”

Chamblee is far from the only Itawambian who’s used her knowledge of stitchery to create cloth masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control began recommending people wear masks in public places – grocery stores in particular – Facebook was filled with posts from both amateur and professional tailors who were piecing together masks out of fabric and elastic bands, donating their creations to hospitals and similar medical facilities to help protect health care workers and selling whatever they hadn’t donated to help cover costs.

It’s been that way for Chamblee, too, who sells whatever masks she doesn’t donate for $5 a pop. She uses that money to buy materials for – what else – more masks.

“It gets pretty costly,” she said. It’s gotten more so as the pandemic has gone on. As more people begin wearing masks to go about their daily lives, the materials to make them, particularly elastic for the earpieces, have become scarce and more expensive. Mask-makers like Chamblee have had to get creative.

“I’ve had to buy ponytail holders and headbands to make my own earpieces,” she said.

It works, and Chamblee’s somewhat encouraged by the dearth of mask-making materials because it means, in theory, that people are wearing them. And Chamblee definitely thinks people should wear masks.

“It scares me that people are not taking it seriously,” she said of the novel coronavirus. Chamblee has worked in infection control and knows how quickly a contagion like COVID-19 can spread from person to person.

“It scares me that they think it’s not going to happen to them, and it very well could,” she said. “And once it starts in your family … the risk that it reaches someone who’s health is compromised – that’s all it’s going to take.”

Something as simple as a homemade mask – just a few folds of cloth between a person’s nose and mouth and the rest of the world – can be the difference between health and sickness for many people. The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. That means grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, restaurants, or anywhere else where it’s difficult to maintain the recommended distance of 6 feet from other people.

According to the CDC, face masks aren’t just about protecting the wearer. With a two-week incubation period, many carriers of the novel coronavirsus haven’t begun showing symptoms but are still spreading the virus to people with whom they make contact. Other carriers – up to 50%, according to the CDC – are asymptomatic, meaning they have the virus but don’t realize it because they show no symptoms.

By wearing a simple cloth mask while out in public, these carriers drastically limit the distance the virus can spread as they interact with other people. If both parties in an interaction are wearing masks, it stifles the potential spread of the virus between them even more.

It’s a relatively simple precautionary step and one many, if not most, health care experts recommend.

That includes Marianela Barnett of Tremont. She’s an abstract associate in cancer research and a clinical research nurse for Concerto Health AI, but also works as a critical care nurse at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford, where she’s seen the effects of COVID-19 firsthand as she’s treated coronavirus patients. Barnett said she’s doing her best to spread good information, to teach people why taking proper precautions – such as wearing a mask while in public – is vital to safety during a public health crisis like the current outbreak.

“The importance of masks is protection for yourself and others,” Barnett said. “It is important to understand the pathogenesis of the viral disease. We know that viruses like influenza, HIV, hepatitis, herpes and many others have different paths of transmission. In the case of [COVID-19], this information is scarce, so we should use common sense and protect ourselves.”

Masks, she said, don’t just protect the wearers; they protect the people with whom they come in contact, and the people with whom the people they come in contact come in contact. When combating a highly contagious virus like COVID-19, where the sickness can spread exponentially, masks can be a break in the chain of contagion.

But most people, at least from what Barnett’s seen, still aren’t wearing them.

“People act in different ways depending on their idiosyncrasies,” she said. “I think the majority [of people] feel embarrassed. Others may feel tough and invincible and take an arrogant posture toward the situation.”

Now isn’t the time for pride; it’s the time for caution.

“Wear a mask,” she said.

From inside her workshop in Fulton, where she’s made hundreds of masks since March, Chamblee spoke with more optimism. She isn’t so much discouraged by the number of people she doesn’t see wearing masks as she is encouraged by the growing number of people she sees who are.

“I think they are [getting more comfortable wearing masks],” she said. Most notably men, more and more of whom she’s seen wearing masks in public.

And as more people become accustomed to wearing them, and the world eventually moves past COVID-19, Chamblee believes wearing masks and its accompanying social distancing measures will become a new norm. Just something people do when in crowds.

“We need to be doing this when it’s flu season,” she said. “If you’ve got a cold and cough, you need to keep your distance from people. Washing your hands – that’s just common sense. We need to be practicing that all the time.”

In the meantime, Chamblee offered a piece of advice:

“Put a mask on,” she said.

It’s a solution that’s as deceptively simple as some fabric scraps and a couple of elastic bands held together by quick stitching, but one that could save countless lives. Chamblee called it “basic humanity” – taking precautionary measures not just for oneself, but for others.

“Think about not only yourself, but your family. What you may be putting someone else through by your own lack of diligence in wearing one,” she said. “It’s just something we need to do.”


Twitter: @admarmr

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