Wanted: 10,000 volunteers each week to sew masks for Utah health care workers

(Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare) Volunteers are being asked to sign up to sew medical-grade face masks, in the new Project Protect program, a collaboration of Latter-day Saint Charities, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health.

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What’s billed as the largest volunteer effort in Utah since the 2002 Winter Olympics officially launched Friday, with the goal of sewing 5 million medical-grade face masks for health care workers treating patients with COVID-19.

Leaders from Latter-day Saint Charities and two major hospital groups, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health, announced the plans for Project Protect, to engage 10,000 volunteers each week for five weeks to turn kits into finished masks.

Hospitals in Utah have enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for their health care workers now, said Dan Liljenquist, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Intermountain. “This project is about having enough through the surge that we know is coming."

Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, said her organization — the humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has never embarked on a partnership like this. She called it “a unique solution to a problem we’ve never seen before.”

Volunteers who register at the project’s website — projectprotect.health — will drive to a location on a Saturday to pick up their mask kits, Eubank said. A worker, avoiding direct contact, will place a box in the trunk of the volunteer’s car. The box will contain 100 mask kits, using a simple pattern, to be sewn together. The volunteer comes back to that location the next Saturday, and a worker will remove a box of completed masks from the trunk.

The masks are made from a polypropylene fabric that will block droplets the wearer breathes out or in, said Jeremy Biggs, medical director of occupational health at U. Health. They do not filter aerosolized particles, like the fitted N95 respirators, he said, but they do stop droplets better than a homemade cloth mask.

Also, Intermountain and U. Health, which drew fire last month when they asked local sewing enthusiasts to stop donating homemade masks, are taking such donations now. Biggs said the hospital groups are sterilizing donated masks and giving them to patients.

Workers at the church’s Beehive Clothing have retooled their facilities to sew medical-grade gowns for health care workers, Eubank said. Other arms of the church — including Deseret Industries, the website JustServe.org, and the women’s Relief Society — are among the community partners in the effort.

Eubank said church President Russell M. Nelson has enthusiastically backed Project Protect. Nelson, a medical doctor in his earlier life, even tried on one of the prototype gowns, she said.

Also backing the program is pro golfer Tony Finau, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He appeared on the videoconference for Friday’s announcement, pledging the support of the Tony Finau Foundation.

Finau called health care workers “the true heroes” during the pandemic. “It’s their responsibility to save lives," he said, “and I think it’s our responsibility to support them.”