CAMDEN, NJ — “Can you sew?” Renee Wickersty, head nurse for Camden schools, whimsically asked a candidate recently.

Not exactly the question you think would spring up during an interview for the role of a district school nurse.

“It was done more in jest than anything else,” joked Wickersityin an interview with TAPinto Camden, “...but then she said yes.”

Sign Up for Camden Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

The new hire, Karen Vidal, most recently provided her services in the cancer unit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Not only will she join the over 25 school nurses in the district, but Vidal became the fifth nurse in a smaller cohort focusing on sewing face masks as part of COVID-19 response efforts.

“We shipped the materials over and she’s ready to go,” said Wickersty, who has been in the district for nearly a decade.

Over 400 masks have been sewn since the end of March and shipped throughout Camden, including hospitals, health care facilities and social service organizations.

Camden security officers and staff members helping with Chromebooks and meal distribution in the district also received masks.

Among the recipients in Camden are Project HOPE, Guadeloupe Family Services, Cooper Family Practice, and Planned Parenthood of Camden. The project has provided filter material, mask savers and comfortable headbands as well.

"Whereas many hospitals at first had some stock at least, we got word that the smaller practices were in need so we kept those in mind too," Wickersty said. "We try to give out to as many organizations and people as we can, and usually try to limit it to 30 masks per donation."

Christa Varga, the nurse who is credited with the idea to sew masks for Camden, was keenly aware of the national PPE shortages one night while Googling mask alternatives. She turned up information from an anesthesiology team at the University of Florida who devised masks made from existing hospital materials.

The masks specifically make use of Halyard H600 two-ply spun polypropylene, which blocks aerosols and droplets like water and bacteria — thought to be step up from surgical masks as far as protection from the coronavirus. 

Wickersty clarified for anyone that handles coronavirus patients that they are "no replacement" for N95 masks.

The material, Varga explained, is typically found on surgical instrument trays. 

“In the beginning of the pandemic people everywhere were looking for good materials to use as substitutes to create face masks. We partnered with a community hospital to provide the medical-grade materials and it just exploded,” Varga said. 

Wickersty said school nurses have also taken the extra step of providing “ear savers” that strap to masks rather than irritate the back of the wearer's ear. 

“We’re trying to do our part to help those on the front lines any way we can,” she added.

Wickersty said sewing efforts are just part of what school nurses are doing on top of their weekly duties to provide health services where they can in the city. 

Robin Cogan, an active member of the Camden community and school nurse, said she understands the kind of haven the nurse's office serves for many students. 

"Our job has been to create those kinds of safe spaces virtually," Cogan said. "We're making videos for kids and have even had a nurse narrate books for children."

Cogan also helped facilitate PSA's with CAMcare doctors — providing the community with facts surrounding the novel coronavirus. 

"The trusted voice I think is very important when getting this sort of information out," she said. "Not only did they help families understand the importance of social distancing, but dispelled the many COVID-19 myths that are out there right now."

A group of Camden school nurses have also volunteered to assist the Camden County Health Department with tracing — investigations that take place after a person has tested positive for the coronavirus in order to seek other potential exposures. 

Wickersty said volunteers are still waiting to hear back but are on hand for whatever the community needs. 

Find TAPinto Camden on Facebook and Twitter. Download the TAPinto mobile app for Androidor iOS.