Terry grad rallies sewing community to combat COVID-19

Kayla Hittig co-founded group making masks for Georgia health care workers on the pandemic’s frontlines

Ed Morales | Mar. 26, 2020

In times of crisis, inspiration comes from a variety of sources. Kayla Hittig (BBA ’11, MBA ’15) found hers in the Atlanta sewing community and a call to arms (and hands) to sew for health care workers.

The Terry College of Business graduate joined Gina Rubano Livingston and Kirsten Hawkins to co-found Sewing Masks for Atlanta Hospitals (COVID-19), a group that is getting homemade protective face masks to Atlanta-area health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Backed by a legion of more than 100 volunteer sewers, the group produced 888 masks in five days, with two of those days being drop-off/intake days, after the Facebook group sprung to life March 21. Hittig hopes to produce more than 5,000 masks in the drive’s first 30 days.

“Within the social media sewing communities there was a lot of circulation of certain hospital systems accepting fabric masks because they were getting critically low on their supplies,” she said. “The way this virus spreads it was due to hit us, so we needed to get ahead of the game.”

The masks, double-layered and made of cotton, are not to be used instead of N95 respirators, but are meant to extend the life of those respirators when they run out of surgical masks.

Kayla Hittig with masks“We understand our mask is not an N-95. It’s not a guarantee against someone getting sick, but it still follows CDC recommendations in a time of crisis,” Hittig said. “Their website recommends in a crisis to use a homemade mask, bandana or scarf. We think a homemade mask is better than a bandana or scarf. We’re trying to fill a supply gap. We understand it’s not the best option, but we are filling a need with an ever increasing list of facilities requesting homemade cloth masks.”

Applying her experience in operations management and distribution, Hittig serves as the volunteer group’s facility coordinator. She’s in contact with medical facilities in Georgia —including Grady and Emory hospitals — determining specifications on the masks they need while getting fabric and materials out to the dedicated sewers. The key is to create a system with the least human contact, so the group uses limited drivers, plastic bins and a central distribution center to streamline the production process and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

The Facebook group serves as a way to recruit sewers, but offers motivation as well. Several health care workers have written advice and words of gratitude. “The things they write give us more energy, and when they saw us mobilizing it gave them hope,” Hittig said.

A recent battle with septic shock sent Hittig to the hospital last year, so she has fresh memories of the daily stresses health care workers go through. Her work through Sewing Masks for Atlanta Hospitals is a way for her to give back.

“Last May I was near death in ICU at Emory, and my nurse was with me most of the time,” she said. “Health workers are all saints at what they do, and I can’t imagine what they are going through. Hospitals are full of people with other illnesses as well — it’s not just an issue for people with the coronavirus. It’s an issue for everybody who gets sick or has something happen to them.”

The group is working with local authorities to continue their distribution while Atlanta residents are ordered to stay-at-home. Hittig said the movement is gaining traction outside Atlanta, as individual Facebook sites to make masks were created for the Athens and Oconee County area, Northeast Georgia (Habersham, Rabun and Stephens counties), Burke County and the northern arc of metro Atlanta (Cherokee, Cobb, Bartow counties).

The enthusiasm for the project has both surprised and encouraged Hittig.

“It’s grown more than we expected, which is fantastic,” she said. “The fact that people are banding together and doing this gives me hope for humanity in this crisis.”