WORTHINGTON — Any doubt about the dedication and drive of the Sanford Worthington Medical Center Auxiliary is dashed to pieces with the knowledge that this 130-member cohort has produced more than 5,655 masks in the past two months.

Among the beneficiaries of the protective items are local health care workers, Nobles County Public Health employees and clients, and area long-term care facilities.

“This goes to show how wonderful the auxiliary is,” attested Christine Bullerman, community programs specialist at Sanford Worthington Medical Center.

“When these ladies were told they couldn’t come into the hospital to do their regular activities [due to COVID-19 restrictions], they took initiative because they still wanted to give and contribute.”

With Karen Feit as the auxiliary president for the past three years, the auxiliary creatively contributes to SWMC’s staff and patients during the best and worst of times.

“We’re trying to do good for a lot of people, and we have our fingers in a lot of pies,” laughed Feit, listing the knitting of “cancer caps” for patients, donations to nurses’ “Zen zones” and a recent gift of cupcakes during National Nurses Week as just a few of their efforts to support health care professionals and patients associated with the local medical facility.

“One of our major annual fundraisers is a December cookie sale, and we have 50 to 60 bakers who bring cookies for that,” Feit added.

In the age of coronavirus, it only made sense for the women to busy their hands in producing homemade — but well-made — masks to help keep medical professionals do their jobs safely. Additional volunteers are also crafting ear-savers and headbands to cut down on the irritation experienced by some workers when wearing tightly fitting masks for eight- to 12-hour shifts.

Feit, who at the time of her wedding decades ago had the skill and wherewithal to sew suits and dresses for all 12 members of her bridal party, was admittedly a little rusty.

“It took me four days to do one mask when I started,” she admitted. “Now I can do four masks in an hour.”

Bullerman’s commute from her Adrian-area home to SWMC takes her conveniently close to Feit’s Rushmore location. That has allowed her to pick up from Feit’s front step not only the masks that Feit has made but also those that Feit, with the help of her husband Tom, has collected from other sewers across the county.

“Karen has been rocking it,” credited Bullerman. Both she and Feit recognized auxiliary vice president Diane Waldner as a critical teammate in the mask production and collection effort, as well.

Bullerman is also grateful to First United Methodist Church for its cooperation in serving as a mask collection point within the city of Worthington.

“They graciously offered to keep a bin in their entryway for that purpose, and I take them to the hospital from there,” explained Bullerman.

Once at SWMC, the masks are laundered in preparation for distribution to those who need them to stay healthy — and that’s a real concern in Nobles County, which since the epidemic struck has recorded 1,387 cases of COVID-19, placing the county fourth out of Minnesota’s 87 counties in case totals and first in the rate of per-capita infection (statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health).

“Our initial goal was to have all hospital and clinic health care workers covered,” said Bullerman.

From there, Bullerman reached out to Nobles County Public Health.

“Public health staff are using them, and are also sharing them with families they serve,” Bullerman noted.

“We’ve also given some to long-term care facilities in Worthington and around the county, and we have given some smaller-sized masks to organizations serving youth.”

As workers become more accustomed to the necessity of mask-wearing, Bullerman points out the masks have begun taking on new life as fashion statements of sorts.

“They’ve become an accessory, with some nurses saying ‘the masks are now part of our uniform,’” said Bullerman.

“And even some people going to the grocery store might want to coordinate masks with their outfits.”

Shared Feit, “I’m sewing masks now with a dog pattern [on the fabric] at the request of a friend — not everyone wants one with a ‘girly’ look — and my next project today is masks with fish.”

Bullerman stressed that the masks these volunteers have produced are of “exceptional quality,” and she and Feit also appreciate generous contributions of material and elastic from Crafty Corner, plus nose pieces from Bedford Industries, that have facilitated the production.

Supplementing the auxiliary’s efforts to keep Nobles County frontline workers safely masked is the recent arrival of 400 KN95 masks funneled through the Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation.

“We’re giving them to first responders in Worthington and in communities throughout Nobles County,” said Jeff Rotert, WRHCF executive director.

“And the dentists in our county are reopening this week, so whatever we can do to assist them, we’ll do,” Rotert continued.

“First responders are, by definition, often the first on the scene of an emergency, and they don’t know what they’ll be dealing with when they arrive, so we want to provide them with the best protective equipment we can.”

Rotert mentioned that Worthington native Seth DeGroot facilitated the KN95 masks for the WRHCF through the work of another foundation with which DeGroot is associated in the Twin Cities.

“We want to encourage people to stay safe,” said Rotert. “That’s been my usual sign-off since COVID-19 started — stay safe.”

And staying safe is the avowed goal of the SWMC Auxiliary volunteers, as well.

“We want to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible,” assured Bullerman, whose job with SWMC has had her happily interacting with the SWMC Auxiliary for a little more than a year.

“They’re a pretty fun, motivated group, and they inspire us all,” Bullerman added.

“Thank you is not enough for what they and other mask-making volunteers are doing. There are no guarantees, but masks definitely cut the risk of infection and viral spread — and we really need our health care workers right now.”