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With needle and thread, Berkshire volunteers aim to increase face mask supply

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PITTSFIELD — Dozens of volunteers handy with a needle and thread are poised to sew medical masks for the local health care industry.

Under Berkshire County Coronavirus Community Assistance, the 50 sewers — and counting — are starting to make 100 percent cotton masks per the proper specifications, according to a BCCCA coordinator, Kate Lauzon.

"People feel needed right now, coming together because there are places that can use these masks," she said.

One such recipient, Berkshire County Arc, is "very appreciative" of the group's generosity, said president and CEO Ken Singer.

"We're in great need of masks and gowns because we have 42 group homes taking care of a lot of people for their health and safety," Singer said.

BCArc provides community-based services to individuals with developmental disabilities, brain injuries and autism in Hampden and Berkshire counties.

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Lauzon said the health care agencies willing to accept the masks must have the ability to sterilize them before use. Once the first batch of masks are sewed, they will be dropped at designated distribution points in South, Central and North Berkshire.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier is using her Pittsfield home as a clearinghouse for the homemade masks.

"I'm very impressed with how people are coming together, just as in wartime," she said. "People are looking to be helpful — it's terrific."

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However, the county's largest health care facility, Berkshire Medical Center is unable — at this time — to accept the homemade masks.

Michael Leary, spokesman for Berkshire Health Systems, which runs BMC, said the hospital is appreciative of the offers of homemade masks and the public's concern for the hospital. But he noted BMC is awaiting guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on potential use of gifted masks, as the ones currently used must meet state and federal regulations for safety and effectiveness.

"We recognize that, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, our available supplies will dwindle and, the Department of Public Health may well permit the use of homemade masks and other equipment," Leary wrote in an email to The Eagle. "If and when we get that permission, we will put in place a process for calling on our community for its help and have made a list of those who have offered assistance already."

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Leary added that the hospital has access to an adequate supply of masks and other equipment from commercial vendors. Yet, BMC's unionized nurses told The Eagle on Tuesday they are dealing with a shortage of masks, often forced to reuse them.

Meanwhile, a Pittsfield-based investment advisory firm has stepped forward to help bolster the mask supply in the county.

Owner and founder of Berkshire Money Management Allen Harris said he was able to track down and purchase hundreds of masks BMC could use immediately.

He is also assisting the volunteer sewers in getting them material to make their masks.

"Many small [health care] organizations also need masks. We have to go beyond BMC," he said. "I would rather have more masks on hand as they will eventually get used."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.


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