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Coronavirus: US Muslims pitch in to help frontline health workers

Muslims across America are taking up needle and thread to make masks and face protectors for health workers in need
In hospitals across US, medical workers say they are still experiencing shortages of masks (MEE/Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati)

When Dr Mounira Habli, an ob-gyn specialist in Cincinnati, Ohio, made a plea for face masks earlier this month, the local Islamic center was quick to answer her call.

Maram Khabbaz, the community service director at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, assembled a team of volunteers to begin stitching face masks from the confines of their homes.

Coordinating the effort virtually, one of the volunteers went to work on creating an instructional video, another obtained materials and the group even created a system for deliveries to local hospitals.

Within days, the volunteers distributed about 1,000 masks to hospitals across the city.

"We needed a lot of help, a lot of volunteers who could sew. So we reached out to all of our friends and neighbours," Khabbaz, who is also a physician, told Middle East Eye.

"In the volunteer list, we had Muslims and non-Muslims - so it was nice to have all members of the community working together."

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As a geriatrician - a doctor who focuses on the elderly - Khabbaz said she knew first hand of the need for masks for doctors, as well as the needs of vulnerable patients.

For weeks, states across the US have been complaining of a dire shortage of face masks.

Low supplies of N95 masks for healthcare workers, which filter out 95 percent or more of small particulate matter from the air – including the virus, have prompted some manufacturers and fashion brands to shift their production to mask-making.

Still, doctors and physicians have repeatedly complained that they are operating on the front lines without proper personal protective equipment (PPE), creating a dangerous situation for the health-care community as they grapple with a seemingly never-ending influx of Covid-19 patients.

So far, the US has reported almost 600,000 cases of the coronavirus, with the world's highest death toll at more than 24,000.

In addition to making masks, the team of volunteers has also helped make mask covers that have helped lengthen the lifespan of those already in use by frontline health-care workers. 

"This type of support from the community has been such a blessing to our team members during the current Covid crisis," said Jeanette Altenau, director of community relations at TriHealth, one of the recipients of the free masks.

"We are so very grateful for all of these gifts and thank everyone involved."

Plastic bags containing face masks.
Cincinnati mosque has made more than 1,000 masks for local hospitals (MEE/Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati)

As individuals and groups across the country have taken up needle and thread, many hospitals are eager to receive home-made masks, though the need for medical-grade face masks remains.

Looking for a way to help frontline healthcare professionals facing dwindling supplies of PPE, a group of Muslim physicians in Rhode Island made use of their connections to help their local hospital receive the much needed items.

Umer Akbar, a Rhode Island doctor, said one of his colleagues - Dr Noreen Shaffi - was able to secure a shipment of 4,500 KN95 masks from China. 

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Not to be confused with N95 masks, KN95 masks are a Chinese version of the N95 mask. They are almost identical and have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US.

"A few weeks ago there was an estimated two-month stockpile of masks, but within a week that went down to a two-week stockpile," Akbar, who serves as president of Americans Helping Others Prosper (AHOPE), told Middle East Eye.

The KN95 masks were then donated to the Rhode Island Hospital, the state's biggest medical center.

Akbar said the project wouldn't have been possible without the involvement of Rhode Island's Muslim community.

"There is a significant amount of members of the Muslim community who are also in the healthcare community and represent a decent proportion of the healthcare community here," he said.

"Medicine is a noble profession," he said. "I think our religion emphasises the responsibility of helping others. So it makes it all the more satisfying to be involved in caring for others."