Hospitals crowdsource protective equipment

Living rooms have been turned into makeshift supply centers

HOSPITALS ARE ASKING the public to donate protective face masks. Construction workers are handing over supplies from building sites to medical personnel. Emergency room doctors are asking their friends to buy them protective goggles on Amazon. And a group of nurses are running a massive collection and distribution center for protective equipment from their homes.

A global shortage of personal protective equipment is threatening Massachusetts hospitals’ ability to care for the expected surge of patients ill with COVID-19. In response, health care providers are turning to unique – and unprecedented – means of obtaining equipment, often relying on the generosity of private donors.

“I think we should be absolutely embarrassed at this point that we watched television while China built hospitals in three weeks and we’ve known about this since then, and we don’t have enough PPE and we don’t see any domestic production taking place,” said Julie Pinkham, executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “A lot of our frontline people feel like sitting ducks right now.”

The shortage of masks, gloves, gowns, and eye protection is not unique to Massachusetts. The World Health Organization warned March 3 that rising demand for protective equipment in the face of the global pandemic, combined with hoarding, panic buying and misuse, is leading to a “severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment.” WHO modeling estimates that 89 million medical masks and 76 million pairs of gloves are needed each month for the response to COVID-19, and the manufacturing industry must boost its capacity by 40 percent to meet that demand.

CommonWealth reported last week that Massachusetts hospitals are already running short of supplies. Massachusetts received 73,000 pieces of personal protective equipment from a national stockpile, but that is only around 10 percent of what state officials requested. Gov. Charlie Baker told President Trump in a conference call  on Thursday that Massachusetts was trying to obtain its own personal protective equipment but was being repeatedly outbid by the federal government.

Some help may be on the way.

March 20, 2020

Mass. Nurses Association executive director Julie Pinkham: “A lot of our frontline people feel like sitting ducks right now.” (Photo courtesy of Claire O’Connell)

On Friday, Baker said an effort spearheaded by Bob Coughlin, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, to obtain donations of personal protective equipment has secured commitments from 200 companies so far, from life sciences firms to dentists to universities. Coughlin and other health care and biotech organizations wrote a letter Wednesday to Massachusetts life sciences and health care companies asking them to donate lab and testing supplies and personal protective equipment to a state stockpile, so it could be distributed by the state’s coronavirus response command center.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a member of the Senate’s coronavirus task force who is leading its supply chain efforts, said Friday that the task force has been in touch with Maine-based Noble Medical Supply, which plans to sell the state protective medical masks and other supplies at a reasonable price. The task force is continuing to search for other sources of protective equipment. But Tarr said Noble has supplies in its warehouses of nearly one million N95 masks, the type most needed by health care providers, and it is taking orders and determining what it can fulfill. The Senate group will pass the information to the state’s coronavirus command center so equipment can be ordered and distributed in accordance with state priorities.

In the meantime, hospitals are taking steps to conserve equipment.

At Tufts Medical Center, the director of emergency management, Nick Duncan, said since news of coronavirus came out of China in January, hospital leadership has been preparing, and in February, the hospital started taking steps to conserve protective equipment. It began requiring immunocompromised patients to stay in their rooms, rather than giving them masks and letting them walk around, and started limiting visitors. Brigham and Women’s Hospital limited the number of non-essential staff allowed into patient rooms and stopped letting medical students shadow doctors when they would need protective equipment.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out revised standards for conserving personal protective equipment, although nurses’ groups are questioning whether the standards are adequate for their safety.

Meanwhile, hospitals, doctors, and nurses are taking unusual measures to obtain materials. The efforts showcase inspiring resolve in the face of the pandemic, but also underscore glaring failings of the country’s health care system in the run-up to the biggest public health emergency in decades.

Tufts is accepting private donations and using its affiliation with Tufts University School of Medicine to obtain supplies from the university.  Duncan said the hospital is forgoing its usual agreements to purchase only from one supplier, which generally allows for cheaper prices, and buying supplies wherever it can – although he noted that supply is limited since globally, “everyone is trying to get every mask they can get their hands on.”

Cambridge Health Alliance, on its website, asked community members for donations of unused masks, gowns and goggles, which can be dropped off at its hospitals in Cambridge, Everett, and Somerville. A public safety officer in Cambridge said between Thursday and mid-day Friday, around 35 people had dropped off equipment.

At a press conference earlier this week, Trish Powers, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital nurse and leader in the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said nurses at Brigham and Women’s used Facebook to solicit donations of personal protective equipment. They are inventorying equipment and working with the hospital to determine what is necessary. She said nurses also purchased equipment themselves from Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Claire O’Connell, a Brigham nurse active in the Massachusetts Nurses Association, is among those spearheading the donation drive. Her family room and foyer are filled with equipment as her home has turned into a de facto distribution center. O’Connell said the effort launched on a private Facebook page for Brigham nurses on Saturday, and has ballooned into a full-scale collection drive that has obtained thousands of pieces of equipment.

The nurses are coordinating spreadsheets and volunteers. Spouses and retired nurses are volunteering, collecting equipment from donors, fielding requests and driving equipment to the hospital.

“If you want to have something done, ask a nurse,” O’Connell said.

In Boston, the Boston Public Health Commission, Boston EMS, and the Office of Emergency Management are coordinating to gather and distribute PPE donations.

“We are incredibly thankful for the community stepping up during this time,” said Rita Nieves, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “Donations will help protect our first responders and health care providers, allowing them to continue to safely provide life-saving care during this crisis.”

Institutions are stepping in. The Boston Building Trades Unions, which saw their work dry up amid Boston’s moratorium on construction projects, this week began collecting donations of unused masks and other equipment from construction workers to give medical personnel.

Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, said the unions are launching similar efforts statewide, working with the Nurses Association. “Construction companies and our training centers have some of these just in their storerooms or in offices, and we want to make sure we get those to first responders,” Callahan said.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Northeast Metro Tech, a vocational school in Wakefield, closed during the pandemic and realized it had unused hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks. It solicited additional material from local business and donated to MelroseWakefield Healthcare 2,000 pairs of gloves, 2,500 masks, 400 safety goggles and containers of rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, wipes and soap. Superintendent David DiBarri called it an “easy decision” to donate to medical workers that serve the community.

Some doctors are simply reaching out to friends. One man was contacted by two friends who are emergency room doctors, who were asking their friends to call suppliers and buy whatever they could off Amazon. The man, who asked not to be named, ordered 30 pairs of protective glasses. They will arrive Saturday, and he will drop them off outside the doctor’s door.