VCU Nursing volunteers sew face masks to protect low-income Richmond senior citizens

A group of volunteers has sewed hundreds of masks for participants in the Richmond Health and Wellness Program.

Woman wearing and holding a face mask. [View Image] Kyungeh An, an associate professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, with face masks she made for Richmond-area senior citizens. (Courtesy photo)

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing faculty, staff, family and community volunteers have been sewing hundreds of face masks that are being distributed to low-income senior citizens in the Richmond metropolitan area, helping to protect a population that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The masks are being provided to participants in the Richmond Health and Wellness Program, which serves vulnerable older adults and adults with disabilities who reside in low-income housing, and that aims to improve the health of communities, enhance the lives of individuals, decrease unnecessary health care utilization and educate future practitioners.

The group of 16 volunteers have so far made 350 masks, and delivered 137 to program participants last week.

“I would like to get them out to people as soon as possible because we know that this is a critical time in Richmond as we are expected to be reaching our peak in the next few weeks,” said Kathie Falls, director of clinical operations for the Richmond Health and Wellness Program. “Our [program] participants are older adults who have multiple chronic conditions so they are particularly vulnerable to this disease. They also live in large apartment buildings so we worry about individual disease transmission as well as the potential spread within their community.”

As the COVID-19 crisis has continued, the program has been conducting wellness visits by phone. Participants had raised concerns about being able to find personal protective equipment, prompting the mask-making effort.

“Many of them do not have family to help them so they must go out for groceries, medications and other errands,” Falls said. “They are anxious and feel very vulnerable.” Person sitting at sewing machine. [View Image]
Kate Ray, a clinical instructor in Adult Health and Nursing Systems, sews face masks. (Courtesy photo)

Around 90% of the Richmond Health and Wellness Program’s participants are black. According to early demographic data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black populations in the U.S. have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

“We know that the social determinants of health that negatively impact an individual’s general health and ultimately their poor health outcomes will also play into the transmission, spread and their ability to fight COVID-19,” Falls said. “The CDC has suggested that people in the community wear a face mask as a barrier and to prevent people from touching their face and coughing or sneezing into the environment. We wrote a disclaimer and printed a copy to give with each mask, clearly stating that this is not an N95 mask. These are cloth masks to help you protect others when you are out in public..”

Falls encouraged others to make and donate face masks to help the volunteers’ effort.

“Making masks is a great way for anyone to help during this crisis,” she said. “We would love to give as many away as we can get, however, we realize that they are time-consuming and not easy to make. We could find a home for 500 masks if we had enough material and time to sew. I know they would be appreciated and put to good use. There are so many people who don't have masks.”

Falls praised the volunteers making the masks for being thoughtful and kind and for stepping up to help in a scary time.

“They have said that they are thrilled to be able to do something meaningful,” she said. “People want so badly to help during this difficult time. One of our sewers wrote a note to go in each bag that said, ‘This face mask was made with love.’”

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