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Karen Searle had a whirlwind of a week organizing a volunteer effort to make reusable medical masks for health care providers, she decided it needed a theme song.

It’s “Go Granny, Go” by the Beach Boys, but instead of the lyrics, “the little old lady from Pasadena,” she sings, “the little old ladies from rural Montana.”

Searle is mobilizing volunteers with the help of the Friends of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Livingston, the Gallatin Quilt Guild and social media to make professional-grade reusable medical masks using cloth, elastic and vacuum bag filters. Searle said there’s been an outpour of support since the project got off the ground only a few days ago.

The original goal was to donate 1,000 masks, but Searle now estimates the volunteers will produce at least twice that. The sewers are using their own cotton fabric to create the masks at home and will then be able to drop them off at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital.

“It’s been a drop, to a ripple, to a wave, to a tsunami,” Searle said.

There are now more than 360 members of the Facebook page dedicated to the effort. Episcopalian Bishops from eight states have asked to expand the project and at least eight local businesses have signed on to help.

Searle worked in health care in Livingston for 30 years, both as the director of a lab and later in administration. Searle’s daughter, Saundra Strasser, is the nursing supervisor on the medical floor of Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. The two have been talking lately about the strain the novel coronavirus has put on health care systems in the United States and globally.

That strain includes shortages of supplies like medical masks.

Rebecca Williamson, nurse manager on the Bozeman Health medical floor, started looking at examples of homemade masks on Pinterest a month ago when China was facing critical shortages. Then it became more evident that the respiratory illness would spread across the U.S and locally. 

She connected with Searle and the two began planning.

“What started out as a small, silly idea has taken on a life of its own,” Williamson said.

Williamson said medical masks are critical for health care providers to protect themselves from disease, especially when dealing with a respiratory illness like the coronavirus.

Searle said she began researching how to make reusable medical masks last weekend. People all over the country are sharing examples of homemade masks, but many are not sufficient for medical use because they’re made of cloth only. Searle said she first found a suitable example from a Taiwanese doctor and that led her to further research.

After referencing U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, Searle found a video on Youtube that demonstrated sewing the kind of cloth mask she wanted — one with a pocket. The pocket holds a HEPA filter, commonly found in vacuums, which can be replaced periodically. The mask design also includes a twist tie for the bridge of the nose.

After a few prototypes, a template was approved by Bozeman Health’s incident command, the group coordinating the hospital’s response to the novel coronavirus. Searle will be in charge of quality control once the masks are turned in.

Searle said she worries about her daughter and others providing care during a global pandemic. She said she’s glad she found a way to help even though she’s self-quarantined at home.

“The worst thing you can do is stay home and pace the floor,” Searle said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.