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

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VCU School of Nursing faculty, staff, family and community volunteers have been sewing hundreds of face masks for distribution to low-income senior citizens in the Richmond 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. The program aims to improve the health of communities, enhance the lives of individuals, decrease unnecessary health care use and educate future clinical professionals. 

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.”

Blacks especially vulnerable to COVID-19

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. Around 90% of Richmond Health and Wellness Program participants are black.

“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.”

More mask-makers needed

Falls has 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. 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.’”