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North Carolina Couple Sews Transparent Masks To Help People With Hearing Loss


Face masks are a staple of pandemic life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last week, declared them a critical tool for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. We'll have more on the benefits of masks in a moment, but face coverings present a unique challenge for people with hearing loss who depend on seeing people speak. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, some mask manufacturers have a fix.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Blake Blackmon and his fiancee welcomed their second child last month.

BLAKE BLACKMON: This is Bo (ph).

BO: (Laughter).

NOGUCHI: Bo is deliciously cute. He entered the world after a quick labor, arriving almost before nurses were ready.

BLACKMON: As soon as the first push happened, she said, no, no, no. Stop, stop, stop. Baby's already crowning. And then she was like, I need to go get the other nurses. Twenty seconds later, like, six nurses come running in, getting everything prepped.

NOGUCHI: His fiancee, Jessica Cournoyer, understood those instructions only because she could read her nurse's lips through a transparent face mask. The mask was custom-made by a good Samaritan living nearby.

BLACKMON: How do you think it would have went if there wasn't the see-through mask?

JESSICA COURNOYER: It would be hard.

NOGUCHI: Cournoyer was born deaf. She abandoned sign language in middle school after a cochlear implant restored most of her hearing. But she still relies on a clear line of sight to see what people are saying. She's not alone. Face masks may be a public health essential, but they come with social downsides. They hide smiles and obscure expressions. They can telegraph suspicion or danger, and they can be a serious impediment for the 10 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. Personally, Blackmon says, he's skeptical about the masks and their protective power against the virus.

BLACKMON: There's a lot of people around here who all just think it's a fib.

NOGUCHI: The science is clear. Masks reduce viral transmission, and the hospital required him to wear one. But normally, Blackmon says, he doesn't, even at the heating and air conditioning company in Salisbury, N.C., where he works with about a hundred people.

BLACKMON: None of us wear masks. We have to do our social distancing and everything. But as far as that goes, like, we really don't wear masks.

NOGUCHI: The ones he and Cournoyer used in the delivery room came courtesy of Karen Franks. Franks lives in the same town but across the political divide.

KAREN FRANKS: The mask thing has become a part of that political divide, and I don't understand why.

NOGUCHI: Franks is an elementary school music teacher who says she never leaves her house unmasked. She spends eight hours a day sewing masks she donates.

FRANKS: You know, it's kind of selfish of me. I want people wearing masks. And if I can get people wearing masks so I can feel safer and be safer, then maybe me making them for people will do it.

NOGUCHI: A friend told her about an expectant couple seeking clear masks. So Franks cut a hole out of a regular one and inserted clear plastic her husband uses at his comic book shop.

FRANKS: It's a high-end Mylar used to protect comic books - expensive comic books. And it repels moisture, so that was what I was making it out of.

NOGUCHI: Those masks found their way to Blackmon, who they later realized had once been Franks' student.

FRANKS: Oh, he was a very good student. He has dark eyebrows and a really sweet smile.

NOGUCHI: Speaking of smiling and students, Franks says she's considering using a transparent mask herself if classes resume. In fact, teachers everywhere are clamoring for clear masks. Demand for those didn't exist until recently. Now one of the few commercial companies making see-through masks says it received orders for millions of them.

AARON HSU: Demand has skyrocketed. I mean, we're working around the clock.

NOGUCHI: Aaron Hsu is CEO and co-founder of ClearMask in Baltimore. It started in 2017, making a niche medical product for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Its product has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use. But Hsu says its popularity has led to copycat scams. He says clear masks are especially in demand among teachers.

HSU: For a lot of children, communication is nonverbal. Being able to see who we're talking to is fundamental to how we communicate and connect.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.