The Grassroots Effort to Protect Health Care Workers Abandoned by the Government

As health care workers run out of protective equipment, private efforts try to fill the gap left by the government

Nurses in New York City call for critical protective gear to handle the coronavirus. Photo: Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

When the Covid-19 crisis exploded three weeks ago, medical students from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine were told to stay home. There wasn’t enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to go around, the hospital administration informed them; the best way to help was to abandon their rotations and leave the gear for the doctors and nurses.

Judy Lubas, a third-year student, wanted to be of service anyway. She started hearing from her rotation colleagues and loved ones in the health care field that they were getting only one or two masks a day. Across the nation, there’s a shortage of PPE — which includes supplies like masks, goggles, surgical gowns, face shields, and gloves — and it puts health care workers in danger as they fight an influx of novel coronavirus cases.

“We were very concerned for their safety during this pandemic,” Lubas said. As it happened, her landlord knew of a distributor who could procure around 400 N95 masks, but it would cost $1,000. Lubas and her classmate Gabrielle Yankelevich began a fundraiser in their network; within an hour, they raised enough money to buy the masks.

Simultaneously, another classmate, Briana Krewson, was working to connect with distributors and find out how to obtain PPE that could be donated to medical staff. The three women decided to team up, and Medical Students for Masks was born. As of now, the group has 40 volunteers from medical schools in the Philadelphia area and has raised around $37,000. They’ve connected with distributors and have been able to obtain over 7,100 masks, which are being allocated throughout 24 Philadelphia hospitals.

“Our goal is to get as many masks as possible, as quickly as possible,” Yankelevich said. “We would much rather be in the hospital. We wish this wasn’t happening and we didn’t have to raise money for it. But right now, we want to do everything we can to help our future colleagues.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say protective equipment, including masks, are meant to be used for a single patient interaction and then discarded. But given the current conditions, the CDC has issued recommendations for health care workers on how to ration supplies, including reusing masks, substituting face shields for them, or as a last resort, using scarves or bandannas to cover the face.

After being told by hospital administrators there was PPE in stock at their workplace for only two weeks, desperate medical staff across the nation have resorted to re-using masks and face shields, wearing scuba goggles instead of medical safety glasses, converting trash bags into ad hoc gowns, and making masks out of household items such as coffee filters.

Such ingenuity is necessary and admirable, but it still doesn’t meet safety standards. Treating Covid-19 patients without the adequate protective equipment is like going to war without the proper body armor. The risks of our PPE shortage are severe: Continuous exposure to the novel coronavirus can lead to illness, forced quarantine, even death.

While the shortage might seem shocking, it was actually long foreseen, and experts say the government should have been better prepared. Back in January — days after the first Covid-19 case was detected in the U.S. but weeks before there was an outbreak — health professionals were issuing warnings that the PPE stockpile was too low. It’s a familiar problem: There was a nationwide shortage of N95 masks following the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, and a shortage of protective equipment has been an issue that’s surfaced in outbreak simulations.

Moreover, hospitals were financially strained even before the pandemic, making it harder for them to stock up on PPE for staff and harder to make big bulk orders now. Grassroots groups have then stepped in to the breach because the federal government has been slow to take action.

Masks for Docs is a grassroots organization made up of more than 3,000 volunteers from all around the globe created in response to this crisis. The goal of the group, co-founded by tech entrepreneur Chad Loder, is to get PPE into the hands of medical staff as soon as possible. Volunteers form chapters in each city coordinate via Slack to find out how to match unused and makeshift PPE to hospital demand. They have taken up a diversity of tasks, among them: using 3D printers to make face shields, coordinating with non-essential businesses like tattoo shops and dentist offices so they can donate their own protective equipment, and organizing delivery to hospitals, nursing homes, correctional facilities, and more.

Loder said that his approach to grassroots efforts was informed by his experience helping Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. “By the time [the government, big companies, and international NGOs] get their shit together, people are dead,” Loder said. “I knew we were going to have issues here in the U.S. and across the world with getting PPE to medical professionals who need it right now, every hour.”

Hospitals were financially strained even before the pandemic, making it harder for them to stock up on PPE for staff and harder to make big bulk orders now.

Thanks to its global base of volunteers, the group has been able to provide more than 30,000 protective equipment to medical staff worldwide. “An ICU bed in Boston does not help a patient in New York and vice versa,” Loder said. “We need boots on the ground in every city, who have the local relationships and local context to work with other mutual aid groups.”

One of the group’s volunteers is Jack Sloan, a 14-year-old in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. The eighth-grader was scrolling through Instagram a week ago when he saw that a company was using 3D printers to make face shields for medical professionals. “I was like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’” Sloan said. After a quick internet search he got in touch with Masks for Docs.

As of Tuesday, Sloan had used his two 3D printers to make 35 face shields — all while simultaneously completing his eighth-grade classes online. Sloan only needs five minutes to pop downstairs and start the process; then he goes back upstairs to continue with his schoolwork while the printers take about an hour to make each shield. He already delivered the first batch. Some of the shields went to his uncle who is a radiologist at a hospital; others went to a friend whose dad is a doctor.

“I enjoy being able to do something myself,” Sloan said, “and not leave what’s essentially the fate of our world up to just the adults.”

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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