Medical Workers Need Masks So A Grassroots Army Is Checking Basements, Garages, And Warehouses

Rounding up masks from garages and construction companies and test kits from research labs, a hardscrabble grassroots army has begun supplying doctors and nurses on the front lines of the war on COVID-19.

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After seeing a screenshot of a text from a frustrated nurse who had no N95 respirator masks and worried about being infected with coronavirus early this week, Julianne Dalcanton leaped into action. As chair of the University of Washington astronomy department, Dalcanton normally spends her time thinking about galaxy formation, not health care supply chains. But on Tuesday night she tweeted out a link to an online form soliciting donations of respirators from the general public that could be donated to nurses and doctors.

“These are masks you may have bought for painting projects with fumes, for blocking smoke inhalation, or for an emergency kit,” the donation page reads.

In less than 48 hours, Dalcanton said, her call out brought in some 1,700 unused masks, which are being picked up by a network of more than 15 volunteers and distributed to hospitals, nursing homes, and directly to health care workers in the Seattle area. Although not all hospitals are taking donations, she said, some facilities happily accepted the masks, noting that distribution and hospital communications are being handled by other people volunteering their time.

“I had eight masks in my basement,” Dalcanton said. “The idea was to take rapid action where we could get all those masks safely in the places they’re needed.”

As the toll from coronavirus pandemic continues to mount, already thin stockpiles of critical equipment — ranging from respirators to eye shields to hand cleaner to specialized kits required to run tests for the virus — have been stretched far thinner.

Although some state health agencies and hospitals have been able to access federal stockpiles of supplies, the Defense Department has begun donating supplies, and manufacturers have massively ramped up production, the needs are still tremendous. Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers tell increasingly grim stories of being forced to reuse or wash personal protective equipment, known as PPE, or of not having any at all, and many have begun begging for help online under the hashtag #GetMePPE.

Over the past few days, a new grassroots movement has emerged to try to help fill that gap, bypassing traditional procurement protocols to get critical materials directly in the hands of those who need them most. Employing Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and email, these people have found creative ways to dig up and distribute overlooked supplies scrounged from garages, cell biology labs, and warehouses around America.

The individual efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to the truly massive quantities required to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but the people behind them hope that collectively they can make a difference — at least until companies that make the gear can begin flooding the market with a new supply.

Perhaps the most hotly demanded items at hospitals and testing labs are N95 respirators. That kind of mask is rated to block 95% of airborne particles, providing a high level of protection against infection and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization for use on health care workers performing high-risk procedures on patients who have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Supplies of the form-fitting respirators have been particularly short because critical components are made only in Asia and supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic. The only American manufacturer of N95 masks, based in Texas, has quadrupled production to one million per day, but it’s far below the level of demand. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that in the outbreak’s early days, many consumers rushed to buy — and sometimes hoard — N95 masks, completely exhausting on-hand supplies at most retailers, despite the fact that medical experts have warned that they are not needed for healthy people.

On Monday, the owners of a boat dealership in Maryland donated 14,000 N95 respirator masks they’d kept for four years in a storage shed to the state health department. Co-owner Rick Levin said he’d bought the masks to donate to children undergoing chemotherapy.

On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence appealed to “construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 industrial masks” to local hospitals and to “forego additional orders of those industrial masks.” That prompted MDH Construction of Plymouth, Massachusetts, to donate 400 respirators to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Plymouth on Wednesday, while another firm, based in Rochester, New York, made a donation of its masks to Strong Memorial Hospital on Thursday.

The shortages are not limited to N95 respirators, and many people are beginning to unearth stores of other essential PPE they are happy to put to better use than gathering dust in storage closets.

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After Boston College canceled in-person classes last week, biology professor Daniel Kirschner rummaged through his lab to see what he could contribute. Then he asked some of his colleagues if they had their own stores. Within a few days, about 10 of his colleagues had left boxes of gloves, lab coats and surgical masks for donation.

“I’ve been picking the supplies up at night, to minimize my exposure,” said Kirschner, who has been giving them to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, which he said was thrilled to accept them.

Ethan Garner, a natural sciences professor at Harvard, contributed to a donation drive on campus before the school was shut down on March 10. Since then, he started connecting with others on Facebook and Twitter who have been collecting supplies.

“After that I started thinking with my partner and we came to the realization there’s a lot of people out there with N95 masks,” he said. “A lot of people have a whole lot of these in storage — construction workers and artists. People who go to Burning Man have many of these, maybe four or five,” he said.

When he realized that it wasn’t always easy to figure out where to drop off supplies and what was needed, he started putting together a spreadsheet of hospitals and their needs, so people could give directly.

Likewise, Zahra Khan, a former systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Wednesday night launched a project called PPE Link designed to connect the supplies that labs have to hospitals around the country.

By Thursday morning she had a functioning website with forms for both requests and donations, and started reaching out to labs and posting on Twitter to get more attention to the project.

The previous night, Dan Lurie, a graduate student in cognitive neuroscience at University of California Berkeley, put up a homegrown donations page inspired by the one started by Dalcanton in Seattle. While at first focused on N95 masks, Lurie soon updated it to include nitrile gloves, surgical masks, and protective eyewear, and separately set up a Slack channel to communicate with volunteer drivers.

By Thursday afternoon, Lurie had garnered donations of 108 N95 masks, which he plans to donate to public and private hospitals in the area. “We’ll take anything, open box or closed box, so long as it’s not used,” Lurie said.

Larger organizations have started collection efforts as well. The Valley Medical Center Foundation, which supports the public hospitals in Silicon Valley, is using its website to launch a collection effort for medical equipment. Already lots of donations have come in, including 15,000 masks from IBM and 195 masks from a paint company.

“We’ve never faced a crisis like this before, so let’s do everything we can,” explained Michael Elliott, the foundation’s chief operating officer.

On Thursday morning, researchers at the University of Washington Medical School received an email from the institution’s facilities office warning them that it was possible they would be called on to donate supplies from their labs. “Please take some time to inventory your PPE and estimate any extra items you may be able to supply,” the email said.

Watching critical supplies dwindle in the face of soaring demand for tests, Mark Pandori, director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, blasted out an emailed cry for help on Monday. The facility is the state’s main testing center for the virus, and Pandori worried it didn’t have enough of a specialized kind of kit containing reagents used for RNA extraction that are used for every single COVID-19 test.

The email, which said the lab was “in desperate need of QIAamp Viral RNA Mini Kit (manual or QIAcube) or the QIAGEN EZ1 Virus Mini Kit v2,” was sent to bench scientists in a variety of disciplines in numerous states, got results.

According to Pandori, a researcher at UCLA in Los Angeles shipped 100 extraction kits, good for as many as 2,500 tests, while scientists at the University of Nevada Reno sent 50 kits. Those supplies helped the lab, Pandori said, continue to ramp up its testing and buy it time until additional extraction kits are approved by the FDA and come available commercially.

“We're so strapped because the entire world is testing for this and leaning on the same manufacturers,” said Pandori whose lab had conducted 989 tests as of Wednesday night, or about half of all tests conducted in Nevada to date.

The calls for supplies have been loudest in Washington state, which in mid-January had the country’s first recorded case of COVID-19, and to date has recorded more than 1,300 cases and at least 74 deaths from the virus. This week, administrative employees of the Providence St. Joseph Health, which is headquartered in Renton, Washington, and operates 51 hospitals in six states, began volunteering time to make hand-make protective face shields made of vinyl, tape, and foam to supplement nearly depleted stocks for health care workers.

Last week, the state’s beleaguered Department of Health delivered a long list of urgent needs to the state’s Department of Enterprise services, which, among other services, handles procurement in the Evergreen State. Among the requests: hand sanitizer, gloves, face shields, gowns, cleaning spray, digital thermometers, and stethoscopes, and other hard to find items.

“Normally you buy things from the conventional supply chain,” said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the DES. “Now we are getting into third parties willing to sell some of the supplies they have on hand. We are looking at manufacturers willing to repurpose their production. We are looking at donations. We are leaving no stone unturned.”

By this past Tuesday, Kent said, the agency’s team of more than 60 procurement specialists had managed to locate about 30% of the items on the Department of Health’s list, but she knows that more lists are likely to come.

“This is going to be a marathon not a sprint,” she said.

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