Commentary: Yes, you can make masks for health care workers

WWII-era Americans knitted wool socks for soldiers; we can come to the aid of front-line medical staff.

By Jessica A. Lee / Special to The Washington Post

As waves of Covid-19 patients inundate our health-care system, the United States faces a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). These masks, goggles, gowns and gloves keep our front-line health-care workers safe so that they can keep us healthy. But at least for right now, there is not enough PPE available to meet the avalanche of demand.

Supplies are so low that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed requirements regarding what counts as PPE and how long a particular PPE item can be used. Some hospitals now ask providers to use one single-use disposable mask for their entire shift. In the Pacific Northwest, nurses and doctors are making their own masks out of office supplies.

#GetMePPE is booming on Twitter. Thousands of health-care workers signed an open letter to the president and vice president making the case for action. “Without adequate protective equipment,” the letter warns, “the crucial shortage will become health care workers.”

As manufacturers and federal leaders deliberate, there is something that we can do now: We can make these products ourselves. In fact, during World War I and World War II, Americans did just that. And it worked; with the added benefit of giving people a sense of purpose, community and commitment to a shared cause at a time of uncertainty and fear.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the nation was far from ready for the fight. Long an isolationist nation, the country had largely managed to stay out of European conflicts. The Atlantic Ocean acted almost like a moat, protecting the United States from getting drawn into wars abroad. German submarines changed all that. The Atlantic transformed from a bulwark to a battleground. Faced with the ongoing threat of unrestricted submarine warfare, America decided to go to war.

Unfortunately, years of isolationism came with a cost. Up to that point, the United States had been able to get by with a bare-bones military: just over 125,000 soldiers in the Army and roughly 180,000 more in the National Guard. Compared to the armies of other combatants, America’s looked like a rounding error. From the Ottoman Empire (2.9 million) to Russia (12 million), the combatants all had millions of soldiers at the ready.

The shortage of soldiers could be solved with a draft. Factories that had been producing munitions for Britain and France could ramp up to meet increased demand. But outfitting the troops was another matter. Faced with a massive influx of new enlistees, the military focused on the basics: a standard issue uniform, socks, boots and a heavy coat. Knit goods such as wool socks, hats and wristlets were simply not regarded as essential equipment.

All of that changed once soldiers reached the front. In the deep trenches of Europe’s battlefront, troops soon discovered that their Army-issue boots lacked insulation and had a nasty way of letting the cold and wet seep in. These conditions made the perfect environment for the fungal infection known as trench foot, which left untreated could escalate to gangrene and, in the worst cases, amputation.

Recognizing an immediate need, the federal government urged Americans of all ages to knit socks and other woolen goods for the soldiers. The American Red Cross coordinated efforts throughout the country, encouraging everyone to “knit a bit for our first line of defense.” Local chapters organized knitting drives. Women’s magazines reprinted patterns and pressed readers to take up their needles for the war effort.

Women and girls comprised the majority of America’s knitting army, but men and boys “knit their bit” as well. People pitched in however they could. Some already knew how to knit, some decided to learn, and some focused on tracking down yarn to keep needles busy. People knit on the bus, at the movies, at church and in line at the store. Over the course of the war, these efforts produced millions of knit goods that safeguarded the health of those on the front lines.

The benefits of Knitting for Victory went far beyond helping U.S. soldiers survive the trenches. It also gave civilians an immediate way to contribute to the war effort. A patriotic camaraderie developed among knitters on the home front. For many, the act of knitting lifted spirits and reduced anxiety by giving them something concrete to do at a time when they might otherwise feel quite helpless. Then as now, staying busy doing something useful was an effective strategy for keeping anxiety at bay.

Some 20 years later, World War II tested the nation’s resilience once again. As factories focused all their efforts on transforming America into, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, the “Arsenal of Democracy,” those on the home front found different ways to do their part. They planted victory gardens and complied with rationing of food and other staples. They held scrap metal drives and bought war bonds. And, once again, they knit.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped launch a resurgence in wartime knitting with a Knit for Defense tea in late September 1941. She quickly became the nation’s most visible knitter, often seen in photos with her knitting bag nearby. The War Production Board put the American Red Cross in charge of the nation’s knitting production and ensured that the organization would have steady access to rationed wool for socks, scarves and other hand-knit goods. Newspapers challenged knitters to get to work and provided info on the cost and location of materials. Red Cross Auxiliary groups rallied communities and neighbors encouraged one another. The sight of people knitting soon became ubiquitous. Knitting was once again a patriotic act.

Some questioned the continued emphasis on handmade knit goods, particularly given that advances in manufacturing technology since the Great War had significantly increased the nation’s production capacity. But those who urged Americans to knit understood that the value of Knitting for Victory was far more than just the items created. It engaged Americans in the war effort and offered an opportunity to work together in common cause. It drew people together during a difficult time. And it gave soldiers a small piece of home to remind them just what they were fighting for.

The crisis we face today is much more immediate. Medical staff need PPE now, and there’s no time to wait. Fortunately, a grass-roots collection of crafters and sewers has set to work making masks for front-line health-care workers. While these homemade masks are far from N95 masks, which provide the highest level of protection against the coronavirus, they are better than nothing at all, which is the frightening reality facing our health care workers. People are stepping up and pitching in, just like their grandparents and great-grandparents did decades ago. Not only does this help our doctors and nurses, but it fosters a strong sense that we’re all in this together.

Front-line health-care workers deserve better. Once this crisis subsides, we must do everything in our power to ensure that we never again put our medical professionals in a situation like this.

In the meantime, pull out those scissors, dust off that sewing machine and get to work.

Jessica A. Lee is an independent scholar. She has a doctorate in history from the University of Washington and spent five years as an associate fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program.

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