Maly Vu, co-owner of City Tailor in Woodbury, prepares a mask to donate to a medical worker Credit: David Thao

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As doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel deal with shortages of the personal protective equipment they need to keep from contracting COVID-19, some members of the Hmong community have come up with a solution to help mitigate the problem.

For the past week, volunteers at City Tailor in Woodbury, which is owned by Maly Vu and Morgan Thao, have been using the shop’s own fabric to sew makeshift protective masks for medical workers across the Twin Cities. Over the past three to four days, Vu, Thao, and others have sewn 800 masks.

“The people are doing it from the kindness of their hearts,” said David Thao, a Woodbury-based plastic surgeon who helped with the effort. “These are people who are spending days making masks and giving them out without the thought of, ‘I’m going to take advantage of the situation and make a quick buck.’ And that’s the beauty of it.”

People across the country are sewing cloth masks to help fill the gap left by the shortage of medical-grade N-95 masks. These aren’t meant to be replacements. “If you’re working in the front line, you need the real thing,” David Thao said. “So for sure, this is not a substitute for that.”

Still, he emphasized that a cloth mask is better than no mask at all. “If you’re in a situation where you’re sick, or you have to go somewhere quick and make a quick transaction or contact, it’s something and it’s better than nothing,” Thao said.

The stitchers at City Tailor have been able to add an extra protective layer to their masks, thanks to David Thao’s clinic, Woodbury Plastic Surgery. The clinic, which has scaled back because elective procedures have been postponed during the pandemic, donated the sterilization wraps that are normally used to keep surgical instruments sanitized and protected. Vu and others at City Tailor are adding the wraps to the masks.

Even the added layer is still not as good as an N-95 mask, but it’s “better than a just piece of cloth on your face,” Thao said.

Just as important, according to Theresa Thao Kalugdan, a family medicine doctor at M Health Fairview Clinic in Woodbury and a board member of the Hmong Medical Association, is educating people on how to properly wear the masks. She said dark moments like these are times for communities to band together. 

“Our jobs, as physicians, is that we are servants,” she said. “And we serve when and where we can. Whether it’s caring for individual patients’ health, consoling their families, fighting for the wellness of the underprivileged, or in this case collaborating with local communities in making and distributing personal protective equipment.”

Some of the recipients–including workers at local senior care centers–pick up the masks from City Tailor. David Thao convinced the Hmong Medical Association, which he chairs, to get involved in distributing these and other handmade masks to health care clinics across the metro.

On Monday, Thao and other doctors with the association dropped off about 50 masks to the M Health Fairview Clinic on Rice Street in St. Paul. They plan to deliver more to the M Health Fairview Clinic in the Midway area of St. Paul and several Healthpartners clinics around the Twin Cities in the coming days. To comply with social distancing, the Hmong Medical Association will choose volunteer doctors who will drop off masks at the clinics near their homes.

In addition to making and donating masks, the Hmong Medical Association–which focuses on general health and wellness advocacy–is conducting educational outreach about COVID-19 and how it’s impacting the Hmong community through social media, YouTube, and local Hmong TV and radio.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...