SOMERSET – When officials began adding up the number of protective masks available countywide last week, the results were startling, Somerset Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

Even though Somerset County's Emergency Management agency had an cache of N-95 medical masks that the county can distribute, for a busy agency such as Somerset Area Ambulance, a share might be used up in weeks – even days – she and fellow commissioner Colleen Dawson added.

"Once we realized the situation we faced, we looked at each other and said 'What can we do?' " Tokar-Ickes said.

An effort launched by Dawson and Tokar-Ickes is aiming to increase the availability of masks – one stitch at a time.

Through an online effort now shared on the county's "Somerset County, Pennsylvania" Facebook page, the duo reached out to residents across the area to help them sew together makeshift masks.

Given the nationwide shortage of N-95 medical masks – and the growing demand for them – there's no way to know when Somerset County could receive enough to supply its firefighters, EMS crews and others whose essential jobs can put them in the path of the coronavirus every day, they said.

Both board members recognized that cotton masks don't offer the same protection that agency-tested N95 "respirator" masks provide.

Microscopic germ particles can slip through fabric, unlike a properly fitted N-95 mask, health officials have said.

"In an ideal situation, we wouldn't be sewing masks, but we're operating on the premise that any mask is better than no mask," Tokar-Ickes said. "This might be someone's only protection, so we're doing what we can with the resources we have – and a lot of community support."

Dawson said that response has been "overwhelming" in recent days.

Since they posted their idea over the weekend, a few hundred Somerset County residents offered their support, volunteered to help or donate toward the cause.

Some organizations – church groups included – have pledged to take on the project, Tokar-Ickes said.

'Helping out' 

More than 75 years ago, Roxanne Updegraff's mother was part of a grassroots group of World War II wives who helped make bandages to supply the war effort overseas.

If the county is calling for help in a potential war against the coronavirus, she said she's willing to do her part.

Updegraff said she has been sewing for 50 years – since 9th grade.

"I think the idea of helping out is tremendous," she said. "And besides, it gives me something else to do because I'm stuck at home anyway."

She said she recruited a friend to help.

"She's going to cut and I'll sew," Updegraff said.

'Ramp up production'

The commissioners have reached out to businesses across the region to purchase 100% cotton fabric, elastic and thread needed to make the masks, Dawson said.

With 2,600 yards of cotton, they estimate they will be able to make 20,000 masks – enough to supply fire and EMS responders plus nursing home workers across Somerset County and government workers whose duties put them in front of the public daily – such as Children and Youth caseworkers.

County officials said they are waiting for the materials to arrive.

"We'll develop a collection system and roll out how we distribute the material to people in the coming days, so we can ramp up production," Tokar-Ickes said.

All masks will be laundered, sanitized and then distributed to whichever agency needs them, she said. 

Sewing support

Those who can't sew can lend a hand regardless. A fund has been set up through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies to support Somerset County's effort.

County officials said the funds will be dedicated to supporting medical and emergency responders within the county while the crisis is ongoing.

Details can be found here:

Donations may be mailed to SoCo Strong Fund in c/o the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, P.O. Box 1105, Somerset, PA 15501.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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