ON MARCH 23, Kat Henry was working the cash register at the Kansas City Hobby Lobby, where she's a department manager. It was the last day before the store shut down to avoid spreading COVID-19, and customers were stocking up on fabric and sewing supplies--getting ready, she assumed, to do some quilting while hunkered down at home. "We tend to see that when it's going to snow," she says. "People kind of rush in and buy all the supplies."
Overhearing customers' conversation, she soon realized she was wrong. The cloth wasn't for quilts but for protective masks. One customer's sister was a nurse who needed covers to wear over the single virus-nitering N9S mask she had to make last all day. Two others were hospice nurses who couldn't get ordinary surgical masks anymore. Volunteering to help them out, Henry herself became part of an international grassroots movement that is filling in the gaps in the pandemic supply chain.
Driving that effort is, first and foremost, the personal threat: friends and loved ones who lack the protection they need. "You suddenly have these waves of public understanding all over the world where people are like, oh, this is bad," says Gui Cavalcanti, founder of Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS). "They may not be aware of the larger issues at play in the supply chain, but they certainly know that their spouse is going to work without safety equipment."
Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops. But there is a major difference. No long-established agency like the Red Cross is coordinating today's efforts. They are completely bottom-up. Contrary to social critics nostalgic for the bowling leagues and civic clubs of the 1950s, Americans have lost neither the ability nor the inclination to band together to help their communities. We just have new tools for coordinating and sharing information. And the self-help has gone global.
In Baltimore, the Open Works makerspace is using its laser cutters to create face shields and has enlisted 260 libraries, military bases, and individuals with 3D printers to make the visors that hold them. Volunteers download the plans and drop off the parts at Open Works, which assembles the shields into packs for local hospitals. The design comes from the website of a Czech company called Prusa Research. "In three days," Prusa says, "we went through dozens of prototypes and two verifications with the...