MORONGO BASIN — Across the world people are asking, “Should I be wearing a mask?”

While at this time, the federal government has not endorsed wearing face masks, unless you are sick or in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, San Bernardino County health officials are recommending people use face coverings when leaving home. Local people are taking it upon themselves to make hundreds of fabric face masks for essential workers and health care professionals in the Morongo Basin.

Those most at risk of contracting COVID-19 are struggling to find basic protective gear like face masks and as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to expand globally, the supply chain for these devices will continue to be stressed locally, said the Centers for Disease Control.

For high-risk individuals especially, and anyone else who has to leave the home for grocery shopping, medical appointments or any other reason, the county recommends using face coverings, which may include coverings that secure to the ears or back of the head and encompass the mouth and nose.

Homemade cloth ear loop-covers, bandannas, handkerchiefs and neck gaiters may be used to reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly among asymptomatic people, the county health department said in a press release.

“Covering your face may help reduce the chance that asymptomatic people spread COVID-19. This is not as effective as staying home and practicing social distancing,” said Curt Hagman, chairman of the board of supervisors. “We all need to do our part to flatten the curve and residents should use this as one more tool to stop the spread of this disease.””

One Morongo Basin resident, Ronda Mueller, started a Facebook group called We Masketeers to create a network of mask makers for the Morongo Basin area.

Mueller started making masks for friends and family when COVID-19 first struck. She offered to send masks to a group of volunteers in Pioneertown who had activated to deliver groceries, do chores and check in on the high-risk elderly community.

“As my first 30 masks were sent to those folks, I was stunned to see that as the supply of masks had severely dwindled, that the CDC lowered the guideline for PPEs (personal protective equipment) for health care workers on the front line to scarves and bandannas as a last resort,” she said. “Having many friends and family in the health care industry, I was devastated that it had come to this.”

Mueller started making more and more masks and giving them to local health care workers.

“I had such a response that I realized that I could never keep up with the need so I started the We Maskateers group on March 20 to network makers with facilities needing masks.”

The group is a space where makers and professionals can share patterns, methods and support and get tips from each other, Mueller said.

The group now has 375 members and has spread beyond the Basin to the rest of the state and even the country. Last time they counted, group members had made over 1,400 masks.

These masks are being sent, for free, to medical professionals as a first priority. The rest of the masks are being sent to essential workers.

“Many have also gone to senior and long-term care facilities, grocery workers, health food stores, postal workers, elderly, immunocompromised, foster care homes, VA workers,” she said. “Some of our members have even provided a free box of masks locally at the Beatnik in Joshua Tree.”

Mueller said that, since her group has started, she noticed some people on social media questioning the effectiveness and need for the homemade face masks.

As a whole, the effectiveness of homemade face masks has not been well studied, but back in 2013 Cambridge University found that, using cotton materials, cloth face masks can be about 70 percent effective against 1-micron particles. Surgical face masks are considered 97 percent effective against these particles.

“Something is better than nothing when we are sharing the same grocery counter,” Mueller said.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said at a media briefing on Monday that there is no specific evidence to suggest the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.

“There also is the issue that we have a massive global shortage,” he said. “Right now the people most at risk from this virus are front-line health workers who are exposed to the virus every second of every day. The thought of them not having masks is horrific.”

But Mueller and another local mask maker, Jaye Jones, stressed that they are not encouraging anyone to take medical-grade masks from those who need it; rather, they are offering an alternative option to the public and an additional layer of protection to health care workers.

“The masks I am making are specifically for health care workers, essential workers and individuals with compromised health,” said Jones, owner of Strata Tattoo Labs. “The masks I have made are to be used on top of existing medical-grade masks that health care workers have been forced to re-use due the PPE shortage. On their own, they are better than nothing.”

Jones believes that if more people can wear masks, even fabric masks, there could be a reduction in the spread of the new coronavirus. She noted that many people are spreading the disease unknowingly because they are asymptomatic. She urged the general community to makeshift their own masks and sewers to join her and Mueller in providing masks for those with the most need.

“The truth is, the masks undoubtedly need to go to the people on the front lines first; the health care workers, essential workers and individuals with compromised health. There is such a great shortage of masks, that those people are at the absolute top of the list,” Jones said.

“If individuals who do not meet those requirements still feel like they need or want a mask, you can easily wear a bandanna over your face, or make a makeshift mask with T-shirt material or other fabrics,” she added.

“It definitely could not hurt in the fight to prevent further spreading of coronavirus in our community and on the planet.”

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