TORONTO -- As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, health-care systems around the world have sounded the alarm over shortages of personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks and surgical face masks, for their frontline staff.

In the U.S., health-care providers, such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and Providence St. Joseph’s Health in Seattle, Wash., have created kits with special fabric and elastic loops in them to distribute to volunteers willing to sew face masks for doctors and nurses.

Companies have also responded to the call for more masks with the U.S. craft store chain Joann Stores repurposing 800 retail locations as places for up to 10 volunteers to gather at a time, to use its sewing machines and supplies to make hospital gowns and masks.

In Canada, the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto has organized a personal protective equipment drive to encourage businesses and individuals with those supplies to donate them to health-care workers across the country.

In response to news of face mask shortages around the world, various do-it-yourself tutorials have appeared online. In fact, officials at Deaconess Health System in Indiana shared a video with instructions on how to sew a cotton fabric face mask which has since racked up nearly a million views on YouTube. 

The face masks featured in the Deaconess Health System’s video and other tutorials circulating online resemble basic surgical masks that doctors and nurses typically use when treating patients.

These types of face masks aren’t considered as protective as the more in-demand N-95 respirators, which fit closely to the face and can filter out 95 per cent of very small airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends these masks, or masks of an equivalent standard, for health-care workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

What should homemade masks be used for?

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious diseases specialist, said he doesn’t think that most of Canada’s health-care institutions are in a “dire situation” in terms of shortages of N-95 masks. However, he said that may be a problem in some of the country’s urgent care and family medical clinics.

The federal government said they have secured millions more masks for health-care workers in the country, while other industries, such as educational institutions and dental facilities, have been asked to turn over their supplies.

While Sharkawy said there may not be a use for homemade masks in the country’s hospitals just yet, he said they can be used in the home, especially by people who are caring for someone with COVID-19.

“If we’re talking about people who are looking after elderly parents or elderly people as personal support workers and you need a mask and you can't get one, there are lots of different ways that you can make your own mask,” he told CTV’s Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme on Monday.

Are homemade masks effective?

While he doesn’t recommend them for doctors and nurses working directly with COVID-19 patients, Sharkawy said homemade face masks can offer some protection against the virus. He said homemade face masks can be made using cotton or even an anti-microbial pillowcase.

“You can use pretty much anything that is going to withstand a little bit of moisture and be rewashed,” he said.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance on homemade face masks for health-care personnel in the event there is a shortage of supplies.

“In settings where face masks are not available, HCP (health-care personnel) might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort,” the government agency stated.

 However, the CDC cautioned that homemade masks shouldn’t be considered personal protective equipment since their capability to protect workers from COVID-19 is “unknown.”

Ideally, health-care workers should only use homemade face masks in combination with a “face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face,” according to the CDC.

Sharkawy stressed that people shouldn’t consider wearing a homemade face mask as a substitute for regularly washing their hands and other preventative measures, such as physical distancing and not touching their face.  

With files from The Associated Press