A major eastern Iowa hospital is asking residents in Iowa’s second-largest city to wear face masks when they’re outside their homes.

Doctor Timothy Quinn, chief of clinical operations at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, says cloth masks are a first line of defense in slowing down the spread of COVID-19 and residents are responding to the request. “So far, the feedback we’ve had is fantastic,” Dr. Quinn says. “A lot of times, people are just looking for something to do and how do we fight back against an invisible enemy?” Mercy’s initiative is called, “Step Up, Mask Up.”

Volunteers have been sewing masks and donating them — by the thousands — to the hospital. Quinn encourages them to continue doing so, as it’s unclear how long the pandemic threat will last. The shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, both in Iowa and nationwide is well documented, and Quinn emphasizes the cloth masks are for public use.

“They absolutely should not be using any of the masks that the medical professionals use,” Quinn says. “The cloth masks really aren’t intended to be for health care providers in a patient care environment, so there shouldn’t be any conflict as long as people understand that the cloth masking is for public use only.”

In addition to hand washing and social distancing, Quinn says wearing a mask is one more measure to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He admits, a cloth mask might not stop the wearer from becoming infected. “Cloth masks don’t prevent people from breathing things in, it’s mainly about the source control,” Quinn says. “If I’m a carrier and I don’t even know it, or I’m in the early stages of infection and I don’t even know it, if I cough or sneeze, it’s eliminating some of the droplets that get out into the air that could potentially impact other people.”

Quinn suggests you wash your own personal mask daily. The hospital’s website has free instructions on making a mask which anyone is welcome to download and use. Cedar Rapids has a population of around 132,000. With 94 reported positive cases, Linn County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state.