Medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients across the United States, faced with personal protective equipment shortages that are causing unsafe working conditions, illnesses and even deaths, have been forced to do what was once unthinkable: crowdsource money to buy their own masks, gowns and other supplies.
It’s a sobering twist on the recent trend that has led hundreds of thousands of Americans to seek charity on the internet to cover their medical expenses.
A simple search for “PPE,” as the equipment is known, on GoFundMe returns thousands of results from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. A subcategory of these fundraisers are those started by health care workers, their family members and their friends, who are trying to help with the national pandemic response and keep health care workers safe.
There’s a group of emergency room doctors in Detroit nearing their $35,000 goal to buy themselves and their colleagues masks, gowns and face shields. In Hawaii, a nurse has raised more than $20,000 to buy thousands of masks. A pediatrician’s office in Colorado has collected more than $10,000 to purchase PPE from a veterinary supplier to donate to the state.
The dire need for equipment like N95 masks, face shields and gowns has become a major concern amid an unprecedented pandemic that has stretched the capacity of hospitals around the world. Supply chain problems, partly related to much of this equipment being manufactured in China, make restocking challenging for hospitals. Hospital procurement systems involve a lot of red tape that makes swift action, like finding additional suppliers, difficult.
And hospitals are facing major financial problems due to the high costs of preparing for and treating COVID-19 patients and because they have been forced to postpone lucrative elective surgeries. Worse, a lack of coordination and even competition among the federal government, states and hospitals have sparked bidding wars that drive up prices and deplete supplies.
Health care workers are being forced to reuse disposable N95 masks for days and to resort to trash bags and other ersatz gowns. These workers also have to fear retaliation from their employers for speaking out or for acquiring their own PPE supplies.
According to survey findings the International Brotherhood of Teamsters released Wednesday, 85% of 1,300 health care workers in the union say PPE is being rationed in their workplaces and 64% said they don’t have access to N95 masks. The survey also found close to half of workers are dissatisfied with their employers’ communications and safety procedures, and 30% are afraid of being punished for asking about safety issues. A Service Employees International Union survey of health care workers produced similar findings.
Unions representing health care workers, such as the SEIU, National Nurses United, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters are pressuring the government and hospitals to do more to protect workers. National Nurses United members protested about worker safety in front of the White House this week. The New York State Nurses Association filed a lawsuit this week against the state and several hospitals alleging inadequate safety procedures and supplies. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating safety issues at hospitals and other health care facilities.
Even if the pleas from health care unions prove successful, front-line health care workers need personal protective equipment now, and are seeking help from the public. HuffPost spoke with the leaders of several GoFundMe campaigns to learn why they had gone this route.
Brooklyn, New York
Physician Charles Kim treated COVID-19 patients early last month at the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center and witnessed firsthand how the coronavirus outbreak was taxing the health care system.
“There’s a lot of fear in our people, in the physicians,” Kim said. “In the beginning time, there weren’t too many PPEs available,” he said. The Brooklyn VA is one of many veterans hospitals struggling through the coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, Kim’s uncle became hospitalized with COVID-19 in New York City.
Kim isn’t seeing COVID-19 patients now because he’s been rotated to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. But he wanted to help his comrades on the front lines, and started a GoFundMe campaign last month that’s already raised more than $100,000, including a $25,000 donation from former ConAgra Foods CEO Gary Rodkin and his wife, Barbara Rodkin. All of the money is earmarked to buy PPE for Kim’s colleagues at the State University of New York Downstate Hospital in Brooklyn, which normally is his primary workplace.
Kim is reluctant to criticize hospital administrators who are struggling to keep up supplies of PPE. “I don’t want to talk bad about anything, because I know people are trying their best,” he said. He’s also seen and heard about significant improvements in the safety of New York City’s health care workers in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, it’s been frustrating for Kim to devote what little spare time he has after treating cancer patients all day to locating and identifying valid PPE suppliers, a task normally handled by the hospitals themselves.
“It’s just crazy. It’s not my job to raise money and to buy these things and to try to vet them to the best of my abilities in my off times. I’m stressed, too. The administrators that are being paid for this should be doing the job that I’m doing,” Kim said.
In less than a month, Lily Ganz has raised more than $20,000 on GoFundMe, enough money to buy a lot of PPE for workers at Boston Medical Center: more than 10,000 N95 masks, 25,000 surgical masks, 100,000 gloves and additional supplies like hand sanitizer, gowns and caps.
Ganz, who is in her third year studying to be a physician assistant at Boston University School of Medicine, is part of a team of students, alumni and Boston Medical Center employees trying to collect at least $25,000 to boost the PPE supplies for the medical center, the largest safety net hospital in New England.
“This is an unprecedented situation that calls for far more PPE than hospitals normally use, and hospitals across the nation are trying to address that gap,” Ganz said. “We saw these other countries around the world like China and Italy, and more recently states like New York, that have struggled with the overwhelmed health care systems and insufficient PPE, and we really wanted to get ahead of the problem.”
Now, the group is moving the fundraiser from GoFundMe to a special website Boston Medical Center set up to collect more donations. This will allow them to avoid GoFundMe’s fees and to have direct access to the funds, which the hospital will use to increase its own PPE orders. An anonymous donor has pledged to match contributions up to a total of $50,000, Ganz said.
“The reason this cause matters to us so much is that health care workers are incredibly valuable. We need to protect our incredibly brave front-line staff. They have a higher risk contracting and transmitting COVID-19, so keeping them healthy helps everyone stay healthy,” Ganz said.
New York City
Mark Albert’s cosmetic surgery practice is all but shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the physician is still spending enough time in hospitals treating patients with injuries who need hand or plastic surgery to know how dangerous the situation is in New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak so far.
That’s why he decided to help out his fellow health care workers who are on the front lines by raising money to buy PPE.
“We’ve never been through something like this before, so to have the knowledge of the volume of equipment necessary, we’re learning as we go. And I’m sure if something like this were to ever happen again that the stockpiles would be greater than they were in preparation for this one,” Albert says.
Albert’s GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $30,000 so far. He’s offering a free botox treatment to a randomly selected donor, too. By using his professional contacts and doing a lot of legwork, Albert identified suppliers who sold him 3,000 N95 respirator masks and has another order of the same size in process.
Albert also reached out to a friend to help him promote the campaign, the actor Dean Winters, known for roles in television shows including “Oz,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “30 Rock,” and as the “Mayhem” character in Allstate Insurance ads for the past decade. Albert and Winters have been publicizing their campaign on Instagram, and Albert’s Instagram posts include photos and videos of health care workers at Lenox Hill Hospital, Harlem Hospital Center and North Central Bronx Hospital receiving the masks donors helped buy.
Winters met Albert last November when the doctor performed plastic surgery on the actor after a head injury. A lifetime of injuries and a harrowing incident 11 years ago that left Winters dead for several minutes motivated him to participate in the campaign, he said.
“My mom tells me that I was training for ‘Mayhem’ my whole life,” Winters said.
When Albert asked for help, it was a “no-brainer,” Winters said. “My life has been saved time and time again by doctors and nurses, and just doing this little campaign for $30,000 doesn’t really seem like any kind of a payback,” he said. “I wish there was more that I could do.”
The underlying problem of health care workers being forced to endure unsafe conditions also is a strong motivator, Winters said.
“It was heartbreaking to me, to think of these poor men and women that are going into the front lines and they’re having to wear Glad bags. It made me so fucking angry,” he said. “America loves to pat itself on the back, ‘We’re the greatest country.’ And at that point, I was like, yeah, you know what? I don’t think so. Not right now. I mean, our health care system is a joke. And look at how we take care of our health care workers.”
At the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, two students set to graduate and become physicians this year have found a different way to help. Amy Tronnier and Moena Nishikawa have raised more than $2,400 for a GoFundMe campaign to purchase materials that they’re using to put together homemade face shields for hospital workers in Washington and New York.
“We’ve turned my one-bedroom med school apartment into a PPE factory,” Tronnier said. Nishikawa has done the same in her home.
Like most people, Tronnier and Nishikawa are staying home these days. As medical students, though, they have a different perspective on the working conditions medical personnel and other hospital workers are enduring.
“This is obviously a very personal thing for us because the people who are currently in the hospitals and who are facing this every day, these are our teachers, they’re our mentors, they’re our friends, and they’re ultimately our future colleagues,” Tronnier said. “When we graduate medical school in a year, we could very easily find ourselves in the same situation.”
Initially, Tronnier and Nishikawa sought to raise $1,000 to pay for materials to assemble the face shields for workers at Washington hospitals. They broadened their aims after hitting that target in less than a day, and raised their goal to $2,000 and started making face shields for New York personnel, too. The students have paid for the materials using their own money while they wait for GoFundMe to transfer the donations they received.
Although the face shields are only built for a single use, Tronnier explained that in addition to protecting a worker’s entire face, they guard N95 masks, allowing them to be used for a longer period of time.
So far, Tronnier and Nishikawa have made more than 800 face shields and plan to assemble 1,000 more by the time they’re done. And their campaign is part of a small trend. Tronnier and Nishikawa were inspired by workers at Providence St. Joseph Health in Washington state, who also made face shields for colleagues, and in turn inspired a GoFundMe campaign from a group of medical students at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Michelle Lei isn’t a doctor, but her husband is, and she knows what he’s been going through at the Bay Area hospital where he works as an anesthesiologist. Lei’s biggest concern is for his safety and the safety of his colleagues, who don’t have enough PPE to prevent infection by the coronavirus.
“Nobody was actually really out there fending for those on the front line,” so she decided to take matters into her own hands and create a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase N95 masks for hospital workers in her area. (Lei declined to name her husband or his employer for fear of retaliation from the hospital.)
So far, she’s raised more than $20,000, which she estimates will be enough to buy 4,000 N95 masks, on top of 500 KN95 masks, which are similar to N95 masks, that she’s already delivered to a New York hospital.
“What they want to know is that they’re just going to be protected, that people have their backs,” she said. “The fact that they’re not only fighting this virus right now, that they’re actually having to fight for their own safety and protection, that’s a layer of worry that should not exist.”
Lei needed to take a crash course in medical equipment and suppliers, and she quickly discovered how chaotic the market for PPE is right now. “I’m not a PPE expert. I work on ads,” she said. “You have to start playing detective.” Lei has put a lot of work into researching legitimate suppliers, avoiding scams and counterfeit materials, and has run into the same bidding wars and supply backlogs as the hospitals themselves.
Lei doesn’t think her husband’s employer is adequately looking after workers or being transparent with staff about supplies of PPE, and she felt she needed to step in on their behalf. “We understand that, in some ways, they’re trying to save their own ass. There are other reasons that are unknown. But to me, the reason I started this campaign was knowing we needed to have N95 masks for everyone at the hospital,” she said.
“Those on the front line right now are kind of going into a special kind of war,” Lei said. “What’s going to happen a year from now when we’re severely understaffed because doctors have been dying?”
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