SALT LAKE CITY— This week marks the halfway point for Project Protect, Utah’s largest volunteer-based project since the 2002 Olympics. To date, Intermountain Healthcare, in partnership with the University of Utah and LDS Charities, has collected more than 2 million handmade medical-grade face masks.
One Sandy volunteer says this project is about much more than just getting the job done — she’s returning the favor.
For Nancy Sorenson, dusting off her nearly 40-year-old Singer was an easy choice. She’s an expert seamstress; over the years she has made all kinds of things like suits and dresses. However, sewing masks for local health care workers on the front line of the COVID-19 fight is perhaps the most meaningful.
"I think people really want something to do. We've just been home long enough," Sorenson said.
As a retiree, she was eager to join the effort especially after her other routine volunteer opportunities were canceled due to COVID-19. "It's just been great for me to have something productive to do," she said.
But, Sorenson said it goes beyond just staying busy. She knows what it's like to go through hard times.
"I had breast cancer when I was 40 and I had a 1-year-old and a not quite 3-year-old," she said. Despite the difficult circumstances she found herself in, friends and neighbors lifted her burden. She had a neighbor regularly take her to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"I've had people that have come out of the woodwork and have helped me," she said. "It just saved me."
Then just fifteen years later, at age 55, Sorenson became a widow after losing her husband to melanoma. He passed away only six weeks after they found out he was sick. Once again, she was surprised by the outpouring of love she received during the biggest trial of her life.
"I was at the hospital and my oldest daughter called and said, ‘Mom, you're never gonna believe it. There are four people over here cleaning your house,’" she said. "Nobody even asked. They just showed up!"
Sorenson said it was the feeling of love and camaraderie of those who helped her that allowed her to get through those tough times.
"So, I've got a lot of paying forward to do," Sorensen said with a laugh.
Sorenson is one of about 30,000 volunteers who have dedicated their time to the project so far. She said it takes her about one hour to complete five masks. She and her neighbor are splitting up a kit of 100 masks to complete the task.
Although they are a lot of work, Sorenson said the kits are going really fast.
Intermountain Healthcare’s Dan Liljenquist said he's not surprised by the overwhelming response since self-reliance and community service run deep in the state of Utah. "This is a community that, on a per capita basis, gives back more than any other community in the country," he said.
Sorensen agrees. "I think service is just kind of ingrained in us," she said. "It's our culture. It's our heritage."
The goal is to collect 5 million masks by May 23, which will hopefully provide a two- to three-month supply for health care workers in the state.
"It really truly lives up to the beehive motif that we're all collectively working together," Liljenquist said.
He says there is a great need. With high international demand for personal protective equipment, Liljenquist said it’s been hard to get materials through traditional supply chains.
"The burn rate for the Intermountain and the University (of Utah health care systems) are about 70,000 to 80,000 masks a day," he said. Some health care workers will go through one or two masks a day, depending on their interaction with patients.
Once masks are completed and dropped off, they will be sanitized before being used. "Each mask is hand inspected and then put in these autoclaves where they're sterilized (and) they're packaged up," she said.
Although Sorenson has been sewing for years, she says the masks aren’t too difficult to make. "If you can sew a straight seam and you have some manual dexterity to handle the material, that's really all you need," she said.
Liljenquist said the masks are already being put to use by health care workers. "We're just profoundly grateful," he said. "It has been absolutely astounding to me that people have spent hours and hours making these masks … It's hard work!"
Despite the outpouring of volunteers, Liljenquist said now is no time to let up. Volunteers can still sign up to reserve time to pick up a mask kit at projectprotect.health. Kits will be available for the next two weeks at five different pick-up locations across Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties.
Kits will be available for pick-up on Tuesdays and should be completed for drop-off on Saturday of the same week.