Robin Carrillo Ortiz is pitching in to a nationwide effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, one stitch at a time.
After seeing a news report about hospitals in Indiana asking regular citizens to make masks for health care workers amid shortages of personal protective equipment, the 46-year-old woman started a mask-making operation in her central Santa Fe home that has since blossomed into a statewide movement with more than 100 volunteers — and growing — each day.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll make a few masks,’ ” she said in a telephone interview as her 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, who learned to sew last week, continued to make masks in the background. “Little did I know.”
Amid all the doom and gloom of a contagious disease that has claimed thousands of lives and infected hundreds of thousands worldwide are inspiring stories of everyday people like Carrillo Ortiz who have stepped up to the front lines of a raging battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
The outpouring of support and generosity from these nontraditional heroes spans every corner of Northern New Mexico.
Everyday people jump into action
Eddie Padilla, a meat cutter at Kaune’s Neighborhood Market, gets up at 6 a.m. and doesn’t leave work until 7 or 8 p.m. When he’s not on the job, the Santa Fe native is delivering food and other essentials to a small group of elderly people he has helped out in the past.
“I take all precautions and try to give them food, just doing what I can for anybody that I can at this point,” he said. “Because people are hoarding; it’s terrible. People don’t have tissue. They don’t have food. I take stuff out of my house, and I go and try to help who I can when I can.”
Pojoaque residents Heather and Terry Nordquist have a similar effort underway. The Nordquists, along with the watchdog organization Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, created a “pandemic pantry” to collect and deliver food to those in need in their community.
“We’ve been calling all the viejitos in Pojoaque that we know of and offering to do stuff like that,” said Heather Nordquist, a research and development scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2018.
“Everyone was kind of cool this first week, but I think next week is going to be when we’re going to start feeling that people are not getting out, and they’re going to need some prescriptions and all that good stuff,” she said.
Nordquist’s mother, hairdresser Stella Vigil Shelburn, donated 800 plastic gowns, or smocks, she had sewn two decades ago. The hairdresser gowns, which Vigil Shelburn planned to sell but never did, now are being worn by health care workers in Rio Arriba County and elsewhere.
“Instead of like the New York medical staff using plastic bags to protect themselves, these accomplish that,” Vigil Shelburn said. “On the scale of the U.S. and on the global scale, it’s probably not a drop in the bucket. But in my community, if it does the job, I’m very pleased about that.”
‘Reminiscent of what happened in World War II’
The push for homemade masks extends beyond Carrillo Ortiz’s home-based operation and comes amid reports of shortages of N95 respirators at medical facilities tending to coronavirus patients. The respirators protect workers against airborne disease particles.
Lauren Reichelt, Rio Arriba County’s health and human services director, started a group called Rosie the Respirators, a play off Rosie the Riveter. The group is comprised of people who can sew or contribute in other ways, from donating materials to dropping off masks at rural clinics.
“I didn’t live through World War II, but it’s reminiscent of what happened in World War II where just everyday people jumped into production to try to help out the troops, and that’s pretty much what’s happening,” Reichelt said.
Reichelt and Carrillo Ortiz emphasized the homemade masks are not intended to replace medical gear.
“We don’t want our doctors or nurses or first responders relying solely on the homemade masks,” Reichelt said. “What we’re doing is we’re using the masks to extend the life of the [N95] paper masks that they have, so if they put a homemade mask over it, they can extend the life of the paper mask by like five to seven days.”
Carrillo Ortiz said N95 respirator masks are intended for one-time use.
“But medical professionals are being asked to wear them all day long,” she said. “I know I’ve heard on the news in other places in the country that they’re asking people to wear them for a week, and they’re just not meant for that.”
While volunteers have been experimenting with different materials and filters, bandanas were used to make the first batch of masks in Rio Arriba County because of what Reichelt called the “most outrageous” guidance she’s ever seen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The guidance was that if they don’t have anything else, doctors and nurses should tie a bandana around their faces,” she said.
Carrillo Ortiz, whose initiative is called Operation Bandana New Mexico, said she would make all her masks with bandanas if she could.
“But I don’t have any bandana fabric,” she said. “They are a mishmash of whatever fabric I had and whatever fabric people have brought me.”
Carrillo Ortiz, who set up a Facebook page that allows people to sign up to volunteer or request masks, said materials are needed to continue the operation.
“I would encourage anybody who doesn’t want to sew but has fabric or elastic sitting around at home, particularly elastic, please, please sign up and we’ll come pick it up,” she said. “It’s a hot commodity right now. It’s up there with hand sanitizer.”
Carrillo Ortiz said she also needs vacuum cleaner bags, particularly high-efficiency particulate air filter vacuum bags, to use as filters.
“I’ve called companies all over the country trying to get rolls of HEPA material,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re made in China, and there’s currently a 90-day lead time for anyone in the country.”
Carrillo Ortiz compared her home’s mask-making operation to a mini-factory and said it’s a family affair, with her daughter and stepdaughter sewing and her husband, Jerry, acting as a runner.
“My husband is one of those who can’t sit at home without going crazy, and I said, ‘Well, I can fix that. I can put you on the road. Just don’t talk to anyone,’ ” she said, laughing.
“I’ve got a team of runners that drop stuff off and pick stuff up, and it’s all no contact so I have a basket on my front porch that people drop stuff into periodically or pull stuff out of periodically,” she added.
On the front lines
Carrillo Ortiz said she taught herself how to sew when she was 17.
“I was actually diagnosed with breast cancer a week after my high school graduation,” she said. “I went through chemo instead of going to college.”
Carrillo Ortiz said she thought she wasn’t going to have anything to do that summer or fall. But her friend’s mother sold sewing machines and offered her work.
“You can work whenever you’re feeling like it, just tell me when you’re going to show up and tell me when you’re not going to show up, and you’ll have something to do,” Carrillo Ortiz recalled of the woman’s instructions.
Carrillo Ortiz went to work selling and demonstrating sewing machines, which she said proved “really difficult” since she didn’t know how to sew.
“I ended up buying a machine and teaching myself how to sew,” she said. “In fact, I’m still using the same sewing machine that I had since I was 17.”
She used to make all her own clothes, as well as clothes for her kids, among other items. But she put sewing on the back burner when she enrolled in nursing school.
“I don’t have time to sew,” she said. “I went back to school a couple of years ago to do all my prerequisites for that and to get in. That’s a full plate.”
Carrillo Ortiz said she would much prefer to be working in the medical field to do more in the fight against the pandemic.
“I’m chomping at the bit because I don’t have my license and would love to be out there on the front lines. So you know, I figure if I can help those who are, that’s what I should be doing,” she said.