Los Angeles Times - 03.04.2020

(C. Jardin) #1


tancing and the stay-at-
home order.”
Once the protective head
gear of choice for Asian im-
migrants and tourists,
masks have popped up on
shoppers at Walmart and
Costco, on Justin Bieber and
Selena Gomez, on the girl
next door and maybe
even your grandparents.
BuzzFeed.com and the New
York Times Style section
have published celebrity
selfie galleries. Masks are si-
lencing sneezes from coast
to coast.
The science is far from
settled about the level of
protection they provide.
Still, concerned citizens are
churning out DIY masks in
retirement communities,
suburban ranch houses and
artist studios, using pat-
terns found online or shared
via email. They are giving
their creations to friends
and family members, donat-
ing them to first responders
and helping fill an enormous
protective equipment gap in
the U.S. healthcare system.
And when the co-
ronavirus finally departs our
shores, the pandemic could
leave behind a permanent
reminder: the mask as an ev-
eryday accessory of Ameri-
can life.
“We may be moving gen-
tly at this point toward the
Asian culture where it’s
more a usual thing to wear
masks to prevent the trans-
mission of viruses,” said Dr.
William Schaffner, professor
of preventive medicine and
infectious diseases at Van-
derbilt University. Even af-
ter the coronavirus crisis
ends, “it wouldn’t surprise
me if we don’t encourage this
some in the near term.”
The problem, of course, is
where to find them. The
president may be encourag-
ing the public to wear masks,
but he hasn’t provided any
shopping guides. They are a
rare commodity.
And that’s where Bibi
Sheonarine comes in.
Three days before the
first COVID-19 death was re-
ported in California, the 66-
year-old real estate broker
decided to start making
cloth masks from her Up-
land home.
First, she measured her
face — ear to ear, nose to
lower chin. Then she mea-
sured her husband’s face.
He’s 73. She cut rectangles
out of a bolt of cream-col-
ored corduroy that she’d
planned to use to make
clothes for war-ravaged Syr-
ians. She stitched elastic
bands to the ends — and
voila. The mask was done.
“It took me 10 minutes,”
she said. “I made a simple vi-
deo tutorial so others could
make them, even a child.”
By March 27, she’d made
459 of them. Some went to lo-
cal hospitals, others to fam-
ily members in New York.
And she realized that just
maybe she and her neigh-

bors could make a dent in
the mask shortage. So she
took to Facebook and
Nextdoor, recruiting other
crafty volunteers.
Nearly a week has
passed, and more than 70
seamstresses in the Upland
area have pitched in, cutting
fabric or sewing. Sheonarine
placed a bin filled with
sewing kits on her porch;
each contains instructions
and enough fabric and elas-
tic bands to make 25 masks.
Eager mask-makers pick
them up every day.
Sheonarine spends 20
hours or so each day on this

potentially lifesaving proj-
ect. She created a spread-
sheet to organize the corps
of volunteers, which grows in
number every day. Recently
awoman texted that her
husband could cut the fabric
for her with a laser, which
would speed the process
“I was elated,” she said. “I
wrote to her: ‘Laser, laser la-
ser! Come over now!’ ”
The project has taken
over Sheonarine’s house, in
addition to her daily life. Her
dining room is filled with
rolls of yarn and fabric. An
iron rests on the table. She

figures she has about 1,
yards of fabric at home,
some printed with flowers,
others with bears and
“I feel like a mini-Ama-
zon,” she said. “Filling or-
ders, picking up orders. But
I feel good. People need
Summer Johnson
McGee, dean of the Uni-
versity of New Haven’s
School of Health Sciences,
said there is still a lack of re-
search analyzing the effec-
tiveness of using masks to
slow the spread of the co-
ronavirus. But she doesn’t
see how wearing one can
“What do we have to
lose?” she said. “Masks may
prevent some transmission,
which is better than not try-
ing to prevent transmission
at all.”
McGee said the initial re-
luctance among public
health officials to push the
general public to wear
masks stemmed from want-
ing to make sure there were
enough for healthcare work-
ers, who are at the greatest
risk of being infected by the
But recent studies sug-
gest that at least 12% to 20%
of people who test positive
for COVID-19 are asymp-
tomatic and may be spread-
ing the virus without realiz-
ing it.
“Given that we may not
know who is carrying the
virus and spreading it, we

need to try to do whatever
we can to prevent spread, in-
cluding the use of cloth
masks,” McGee said.
Chunhuei Chi, director of
the Center for Global Health
at Oregon State University,
said government leaders
who have called for people to
don masks when leaving
their homes may also have
been influenced by the slow
growth of coronavirus infec-
tions in East Asian places
such as Taiwan, Japan,
South Korea and Singapore,
where wearing masks is
“They got their first cases
much earlier than Europe
and the U.S., but if you look
at the total number of cases,
they have been growing very
slowly,” Chi said. “Wearing
masks is one way that has al-
lowed them to slow the num-
ber of cases.”
Chi said there is a lot of
discussion among public
health researchers as to why
even homemade and surgi-
cal masks, which are not fine
enough to filter out virus
particles, are preventing the
spread of the disease.
Masks can help protect a
healthy person from getting
infected by blocking drop-
lets containing the virus
from entering the mucus
membranes in the mouth or
nose. They can also prevent
asymptomatic people from
passing on the virus un-
“I highly recommend
that people wear makeshift

masks,” Chi said. “If you
have a surgical mask, wear
it, but even a cotton mask is
very adequate for people to
Health officials in the
San Francisco Bay Area
take that viewpoint to heart.
On Thursday, the San Ma-
teo County Joint Informa-
tion Center recommended
that residents of the region
“cover their nose and mouth
with cloth when leaving
home for essential travel
such as doctor appoint-
ments, grocery shopping or
pharmacy visits.”
Still, Vanderbilt’s
Schaffner has a rather large
caveat. His wife found an old
supply of masks they’d
bought years ago during a
previous viral epidemic.
They’re sharing those with
family and using them when
they go to the grocery store.
If he didn’t have one, he said,
he’d probably use a scarf.
“What’s the downside to
asking people to put on
masks or wrap their faces
with a shawl?” he asked. “It
may make some people
think they’re bulletproof.
Some bozo out there will say,
‘Let’s put on our bandannas
and have a poker party
“That’s what we call, in
my family, ‘d-u-m dumb,’ ”
he said.

Times staff writers
Rong-Gong Lin II, Taryn
Luna and David Lauter
contributed to this report.

Could masks be the new normal?

[Masks,from A1]

BIBI SHEONARINE,a 66-year-old real estate broker in Upland, spends most of each day sewing dozens of cloth masks for donation.

Photographs by Irfan KhanLos Angeles Times

‘I feel like a mini-Amazon.... But I

feel good. People need them.’

who is distributing mask-making kits from home in Upland

that we don’t drop the idea
of a large-scale, proactive,
predictive program that
tries to catch pandemics be-
fore they happen. Cutting a
program that could in any
way reduce the risk of things
like COVID-19 happening
again is, by any measure,
shortsighted,” he added.
It is unclear whether an-
other five-year grant would
have dulled the impact of the
current pandemic. But the
Trump administration has
come under increased criti-
cism for its past moves to
downgrade global health se-
curity, including proposals
to slash funding to science
agencies and the elimina-
tion of the National Security
Council’s key global health
A spokesman for USAID
said PREDICT was “just one
component of USAID’s glob-
al health security efforts and
accounted for less than 20%
of our global health security
funding.” He also said a new
initiative to stop the spill-
over of viruses from animals
to humans is scheduled to be
awarded in August.
The PREDICT project,
which operated on two five-
year funding cycles that for-
mally concluded last Sep-
tember, enrolled both epide-
miologists and wildlife vet-
erinarians to examine the
types of interactions be-
tween animals and humans
that researchers suspect led
to the current outbreak of
The pandemic “didn’t

surprise us, unfortunately,”
said Jonna Mazet, executive
director of the One Health
Institute in the UC Davis
School of Veterinary Medi-
cine, who served as the glob-
al director of PREDICT for a
decade. “The work had been
ongoing for some time. And
when the crisis hits, every-
body stands up and takes
notice and says, ‘OK, we be-
lieve you.’”
The PREDICT project,
launched in response to the
2005 H5N1 “bird flu” scare,
gathered specimens from
more than 10,000 bats and
2,000 other mammals in
search of dangerous viruses.
They detected about 1,
viruses that could spread
from wild animals to hu-

mans, signaling pandemic
potential. More than 160 of
them were novel co-
ronaviruses, much like
They also took blood
samples from people in rural
China, and learned that, in
living among wildlife, they
had been exposed to co-
ronaviruses — a clear sign
that, if those viruses spread
easily among humans, they
could take off. That “raised
the red flag,” said Mazet.
“Coronaviruses were
jumping easily across
species lines and were ones
to watch for epidemics and
pandemics,” she said.
The program also
trained nearly 7,000 people
across medical and agricul-

tural sectors in 30 countries
in Asia, Africa and the Mid-
dle East to help them detect
deadly new viruses on their
own. One of those labs was
the Wuhan Institute of Virol-
ogy — the Chinese lab that
quickly identified SARS-
CoV-2, Mazet said.
The Wuhan lab received
USAID funding for equip-
ment, and PREDICT coor-
dinators connected the sci-
entists there with research-
ers in other countries in or-
der to synchronize tracking
of novel viruses before
The project’s second
funding cycle concluded on
Sept. 30, 2019, less than two
months before the new co-
ronavirus probably began

spreading. It was granted a
zero-dollar six-month ex-
tension — through March
2020 — to write up final re-
Dennis Carroll, a widely
respected scientist who
headed USAID’s emerging
threats division, oversaw the
initiative for its duration,
but retired around the time
it was shut down. Carroll did
not respond to an inquiry
from The Times, but told the
New York Times last year
that by January 2019, the
program had “essentially
collapsed into hibernation,”
and that its conclusion was
due to “the ascension of risk-
averse bureaucrats.”
Other members of the
consortium included Co-
lumbia University’s Center
for Infection and Immunity
and several institutes that
manage major U.S. zoos.
Earlier this year, as
COVID-19 took off, U.S. law-
makers expressed frustra-
tion over the program’s end.
“Addressing and pre-
venting the spread of co-
ronavirus and potential pan-
demic disease outbreaks is a
serious matter that requires
adequate resources for and
cooperation between ex-
perts throughout the federal
government,” Sens. Eliza-
beth Warren and Angus
King wrote in a letter to US-
AID’s administrator earlier
this year, asking for details
on the decision.
On Wednesday, the PRE-
DICT program was ex-
tended through September
to offer emergency technical

assistance to foreign labs
battling the coronavirus
pandemic. To date, PRE-
DICT-supported labs in
Malaysia, Thailand and In-
donesia are actively testing
for coronavirus cases,
Daszak said, and he has
been sending reagents and
other supplies to assist
Meanwhile, in Rwanda,
scientists who had been
trained in the PREDICT
program triggered early so-
cial distancing measures,
Mazet said. “I do think that
what we were doing has
changed the outcomes for a
lot of countries,” she said.
“But unfortunately, not
our own,” she added.
Daszak said he’s eager to
further examine the hun-
dreds of wildlife samples col-
lected during the PREDICT
initiative over the years,
looking to identify whether
any of them could have been
intermediate hosts for the
virus currently sweeping the
But with the limited
budget and timeline, efforts
to continue in-depth field
work under PREDICT will
be minimal. Most of the ex-
tension funding will be fo-
cused on squelching the cur-
rent outbreak, not prevent-
ing the next.
“It’s common sense to
know your enemy,” Daszak
said. “Instead, we’re all hid-
ing inside our houses as we
wait around for a vaccine —
that’s not a good global
strategy to battling a dan-
gerous virus.”

U.S. ended pandemic early-warning program

[Program,from A1]

THE USAIDproject that was halted in September trained and supported staff in
60 foreign labs, including in Wuhan, China, before the new coronavirus emerged.

AFP/Getty Images
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