As doctors, nurses and technicians in Utah wage a grueling, high-risk frontline battle to care for COVID-19 patients, protecting each of those medical professionals remains simultaneously essential.
Recognizing the dire need for personal protective equipment, leaders of an initiative sponsored by the Church’s Latter-day Saint Charities and two Utah health entities — University of Utah Health and Intermountain Health — issued a call Friday for a massive number of volunteers in Utah. The volunteers will help sew millions of medical-grade masks to be utilized by medical professionals working directly with people infected with the highly contagious virus.
The Church and its initiative partners, including the Tony Finau Foundation, will also provide much-needed personal protective equipment items (or PPE) such as face shields and protective gowns for health care personnel.
The unprecedented charitable initiative is aptly named “Project Protect.”
Volunteers from the Utah community who have a sewing machine and an impulse to serve will be integral to the project’s success over the coming weeks as the disease makes its expected surge across the Beehive State.
At a Friday morning press conference, Sister Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, spoke of the Church’s enthusiasm to be a part of an initiative that will help protect women and men working tirelessly to care for those battling the virus.
“We’ve never done a partnership like this before — it is a unique solution to a problem that has probably never been seen,” she said.
As medical professionals worked frantically in recent months to prepare for the virus spreading in Utah, they identified a dire need for millions of protective masks made from medical-grade material and designed to block infectious droplets that can be spread when, say, a COVID-19 patient coughs or sneezes.
This is where people from the community are needed in what’s being called the largest volunteer initiative in Utah since the 2002 Winter Games. Reaching the initiative goal of 5 million clinical face masks will require broad participation from anyone in Utah who owns a single-needle sewing machine.
“We’re asking for about 10,000 volunteers a week for the next five weeks to help us in this project,” said Dan Liljenquist, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Intermountain Health Care. “And we are so profoundly grateful for the hundreds of volunteers who have already participated with us in piloting this project and getting it ready to go.”
Latter-day Saints or anyone else in the community can sign-up for Project Protect by registering on the Church’s JustServe.org website. No surprise, the website was in heavy demand Friday — so would-be volunteers are being asked to be patient and keep trying to login.
After registering, volunteers will be given instructions on picking up bags of unassembled clinical face masks at one of the following five Deseret Industries locations in Utah: American Fork, Harrisville, Layton, Murray or Riverton.
In compliance with social distancing guidelines, the distribution center’s donation drive-through area will be temporarily converted into a drive-up location for volunteers to pull up in their vehicles and receive printed sewing instructions and a pattern to help them understand how to assemble the clinical face masks.
“A very simple pattern has been developed that meets medical standards but is also easy to sew,” said Sister Eubank. “So anybody who has a little bit of experience and a single-needle sewing machine can help make these masks.”
Each clinical face mask kit contains 100 unassembled clinical face masks made from medical-grade polypropylene, which offers a similar level of protection as approved surgical masks.
It should take each volunteer approximately five minutes to sew each mask, and within a few days, the Project Protect helpers will return them to the same location.
The assembled clinical face masks will then be cleaned before distribution.
“This is such a unique opportunity to do something,” said Sister Eubank “We all want to volunteer when there’s a disaster. And here’s something very critical and very productive that each of us can do.
“The fact that we’re going to get 10,000 volunteers for five weeks [adds up to] 750,000 volunteer hours.”
Sister Eubank said the First Presidency approved of the Church’s participation in the Project Protect initiative. A retired heart surgeon, President Russell M. Nelson even inspected the types of protective equipment that will be provided to his colleagues in Utah’s medical community.
At a press conference Friday afternoon hosted by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham noted the Relief Society’s long history of promoting health care.
Project Protect, she said, offers Relief Society sisters across the state — along with men, youth and people of all backgrounds — an essential role in the effort to protect the state’s medical professionals.
“I hope you will join us,” she said.
Dr. Jeremy Biggs, medical director of Occupational Health at the University of Utah, said the medical-grade masks, along with the other protective equipment being donated through the initiative, are essential resources in protecting medical professionals.
“Project Protect will literally put a life saving barrier between us and COVID-19 because it will give us masks and other PPE made of this special material that we need to protect us when we’re caring for COVID-19 patients, something that isn’t possible with the cloth masks,” he said.
At Friday’s press conference, PGA pro golfer and Latter-day Saint Tony Finau spoke of his enthusiasm for supporting Project Protect in his home state through the Tony Finau Foundation. He called the doctors and other medical professionals “the true heroes” during the ongoing pandemic. After learning more about the initiative, he was eager to participate.
“When I heard about this Project Protect initiative, I knew our foundation wanted to go all in,” he said. “It’s important for our community to come together and take care of our true heroes.”
More information about the initiative can be found at projectprotect.health.