LYNNWOOD — Susie Snyder is a self-proclaimed “fabric freak.”
She began her career working for a crew that made sample garments for designers and then spent years overseeing quality control at garment factories in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Now, during her retirement, she begins every morning at her kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee, a sharp pair of scissors and a stack of fabric — from bed sheets to elaborate prints — destined to become masks for those who need them the most during the coronavirus pandemic.
Snyder is a member of a Facebook group that started with a Woodinville woman, Nichole “Nikki” Speaks, who doesn’t know how to sew. Speaks founded Gratitude Masks, a group that partnered with Stop The Bug, a larger Seattle-based organization that aims to help protective gear drives across the country communicate, organize and act.
Stop the Bug Gratitude Masks is one of many such online networks of mask-makers that have sprouted across the country to assist hospitals, paramedics and others on the front lines of COVID-19 relief efforts, who are grappling with widespread shortages of protective equipment.
“I thought, ‘I could make a difference. I’ve got all the time in the world,’” Snyder said.
Speaks, an administrator at a Lynnwood detoxification unit run by Evergreen Recovery Centers, started the group in mid-March because she was worried about the detox’s 30 or so nurses going without protective equipment.
The detox is a place where those who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction can safely sober up and learn more about treatment options. It’s a facility that, compared to nursing homes and hospitals, is fairly low on the state Department of Health’s list of priorities for personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Speaks said she was especially concerned because patients in withdrawal and people with COVID-19 experience some of the same symptoms, making it hard to discern potential coronavirus cases.
She resorted to a Woodinville community Facebook page.
“Within literally 5 minutes, I probably had 30 people that wanted to help,” said Speaks during a recent phone interview from the parking lot of a Jo-Ann Fabric store. “So that’s how the page started — I needed a way to be able to communicate with everybody altogether at one time.”
“It has just blown up from there,” she said.
The group now has more than 260 members and has produced some 3,000 masks.
Some participants, like Snyder, cut fabric. Others sew or make monetary donations.
The fruits of their labor have gone not only to health care workers but to police and fire departments. Snyder has personally made donations to assisted living facilities, other detox centers and a methadone clinic, too.
“It’s just really been quite amazing, honestly, the way that people in the community are coming together and wanting to help and donate money,” Speaks said. “From my perspective, anybody and everybody can help in some form or fashion.”
Stop the Bug has delivered about 10,000 home-sewn masks, 400 face shields, isolation gowns and other gear to hospitals, first responders and non-profit organizations across the Pacific Northwest.
“A lot of people are seeing the curve flattening, and they think that there’s not a lot of need. But we still have officers and medics out there without PPE,” said Stop the Bug founder Victory Lonnquist, who works for Snoqualmie Pass Fire & Rescue and lives in Woodinville.
Lonnquist started Stop the Bug after her friend, a nurse at an Everett hospital, said she was working shifts in a bandanna instead of a mask.
“No one in this field, whether you’re a doctor or a nurse or a medic or a firefighter, has ever seen this happen — ever,” Lonnquist said of the shortage. “As soon as I knew that they didn’t have the PPE they needed in the middle of a pandemic, I sprang to action, as I think a lot of people did.”
Lonnquist, who was a first responder at Ground Zero following 9/11, said she — like so many other police officers and firefighters — long relied on regimented protocols to address disasters.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned that world upside down.
“Now we’re in a situation where the system has failed us,” she said. “That means that suddenly we have to step out of those lines, and that’s a really uncomfortable place to be.”