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'MN Masks On' volunteers make 20,000 masks and counting for HCMC's Emergency Department

In honor of MLK National Day of Service, the group met over Zoom for a "sew-a-thon" to make masks to donate.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service. In honor of MLK, a group of Minnesotans got together over Zoom to sew masks for donation. 

The "sew-a-thon" on Monday is one of many virtual events the group, MN Masks On, has held since forming in March of last year. So far, they have provided 20,750 masks to patients at Hennepin County Medical Center's Emergency Department. 

"This started back in March at the beginning of the pandemic when my husband Steve Smith who's an emergency physician at HCMC told me and a friend of mine, Cindy McDonnell, that they were in desperate need of PPE for patients coming into the emergency department. At that time, there was such a shortage that they only had enough of the disposable procedural masks to give to patients with COVID symptoms," recalled Deborah Zvosec of south Minneapolis. 

Quickly, they built a network of volunteers that included sewists, cloth-cutters/kit makers and drivers. 

Credit: KARE 11
Suzanne Wall (top left), Karen Ewanowski (top right) and Deborah Zvosec (bottom) of MN Masks On.

"It was such a tangible way to support our community and it's like being in the middle of a natural disaster and kind of rolling up your sleeves and filling sandbags or making masks. It's really powerful. It's... really helped keep me sane this last year," said Karen Ewanowski of St. Paul. 

Initially, they were providing 75-100 masks per day but it then get bumped up to 150-200 per day. Currently, the team is sewing about 70 reusable masks per day. 

MN Masks On started by sewing just cloth masks. Then in July, McDonnell designed a mask from halyard (surgical wrap) material and they began distributing those along with the cloth masks. 

Co-founder Suzanne Wall of Maple Plain pointed out that not everyone can afford reusable masks.

"Many of the people who come into the emergency department are homeless, or have housing insecurity, have food insecurity," Wall said. 

"There are many groups that continue to need masks," Zvosec added. 

About 70 volunteers have been a part of MN Masks On; the team currently includes about 25 members. 

Credit: Hennepin Healthcare
A patient at HCMC wears a MN Masks On mask.

Over the course of this project, MN Masks On has raised over $13,000 to pay for supplies and mask-making equipment thanks to individual donors and organizations. 

The group held a New Year's Eve sew-a-thon that helped them surpass their year-end goal of 20,000 masks. 

Monday's sew-a-thon included poetry readings, music and guest speakers from HCMC. It was also an opportunity for them to encourage others to form their own groups, using GetPPE.org as a resource to finding facilities in need of masks. 

"There are many groups that continue to need masks and people can still continue sewing and develop a relationship with a facility in their community or they can find one on this registry," Zvosec said. "This pandemic is here; it's going to be here for several more months. There's this more contagious strain and we need to persist."

The majority of people in the MN Masks On group have never met each other in person. 

"There are just some really, really neat people," Wall said. "We've certainly enjoyed getting to know each other and one day we will all be able to meet each other in person and have a party and we can't wait for that."