In recents months, with the spread of coronavirus across the world, demand for hospital equipment has skyrocketed. Life-saving medical machinery, such as ventilators, and everyday products, such as hand sanitizer, have often been in short supply, and hospitals are sometimes forced to wait days or weeks while scattered supply chains muster up production to meet demand or for cross-country shipments of these essential materials.
Sometimes, though, these necessary items may come from those living people just next door, who freely donate store-bought and handmade items to sustain hospitals — Charlottesville is no exception, as community members have rallied behind its healthcare workers to combat coronavirus and treat suffering patients.
The University Health System opened a collection center for personal protective equipment donations on April 3. PPE includes all types of clothing used to guard against infections, including surgical masks, N95 respirators or filtered masks, disposable gloves and face shields. Community members have since ventured to the collection center at the loading dock behind the Education Resource Center at 1240 Lee Street to donate these and other items.
“We are extremely grateful to the community for supporting our healthcare workers and each other during this unprecedented time,” said K. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs, in a University Health System press release.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, as of Tuesday, there are 14,339 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth, and of those cases, 261 are in the Thomas Jefferson Health District, 80 in Albemarle County and 51 in Charlottesville. As of Monday, 24 patients were being treated directly by the University Health System.
Justin Vesser, residency program director for the PGY1 Community-Based Pharmacy Resident Program at the University, who is helping to oversee the donation center, stressed the importance of PPE during the coronavirus outbreak. A surgical mask — or even just a bandana — acts as a physical barrier that will not only help prevent an uninfected person from coming into contact with respiratory droplets that contain virulent particles, but also prevent asymptomatic individuals from unwittingly transferring the virus to others.
“We need as many barriers as possible that are appropriate and helpful to keep us from sharing the disease back and forth,” Vesser said.
Healthcare workers whose job often puts them in direct contact with coronavirus patients are the ones who require PPE the most.
“Healthcare workers often do not have the option to social distance from someone,” Vesser said. “That’s why face shields, gowns, masks and gloves are so important to protect them.”
A recent press release emphasized Vesser’s words, stating that as of April 20 the University Health System requires patients and visitors to wear masks when inside University Health facilities. The regulation aims to protect healthcare workers and hospital patients as they fight coronavirus. Incoming patients and visitors are asked to arrive with their own masks, though University Health staff will provide them with one if needed. As a result, the demand for PPE at University Health facilities has only continued to grow.
When coronavirus arrived in Charlottesville in March, University Health System workers dedicated themselves to carefully managing essential protection and sanitization tools. Vesser attributed conscientious planning to healthcare workers largely having access to the tools they need to treat coronavirus patients.
Nevertheless, inquiries about ways to aid workers on the frontlines flooded in, prompting the University Health System to create a collection site for PPE and cleaning equipment, where many from Charlottesville and the surrounding area have delivered boxes full of equipment.
“Central Virginia, Charlottesville and beyond rose up to say U.Va. is important, and we care about our healthcare workers,” Vesser said. “They said messages from the CDC and all over the country were saying people need to reserve PPE for frontline workers, and they wanted to donate those things.”
In the past month, locals have donated equipment from colorful hand-crafted masks to Clorox wipes, all with the goal of sending those goods to the place where they can be the most effective.
“I’ve seen everything from little old ladies coming with shopping bags full of homemade masks to people donating 500 N95 respirators to giant cartons of safety goggles,” Vesser said. ”Everybody has been very gracious and just happy to do it.”
Once the University Health System receives supplies, staff and volunteers sort and distribute them throughout the hospital. For those products not cleared for hospital use, University Health System partner Equip Cville — a grassroots project started in the wake of coronavirus-related shortages in the healthcare system — accepts and delivers them to other local healthcare workers.
“Equip Cville has been great about getting things out to the community,” Vesser said. “Nothing is going to waste.”
In addition to people in the immediate area donating supplies, students — many who are far from the University due to the cancellation of in-person classes for the semester — have pitched in to provide PPE for the Health System. Fourth-year College student Jeannie Taylor founded the University’s chapter of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, an initiative started by students at Columbia University. Within a few days, more than 120 volunteers had joined the effort to support healthcare workers and hospital staff in a variety of ways, including through PPE donations.
Fourth-year College student Clare Kinsella and third-year College student Jasmanet Chahal oversee the PPE project with a particular focus on creating masks. Both Kinsella and Chahal expressed a desire to serve Charlottesville, especially when they cannot be there in person.
“I had been feeling very stuck and fractured from U.Va. and the Charlottesville community that has become home over the past four years,” Kinsella said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The opportunity to reconnect with that community and to contribute in a meaningful way to those in need was an obvious decision.”
Currently, there are 19 volunteers working on the CSSC PPE project in coordination with Maureen Oswald, the volunteer services coordinator at the University hospital, to encourage students and their communities to send PPE to the University Health System.
“Right now we’re trying to recruit the help of friends and family to contribute to the cause and try to donate as many masks as we possibly can,” Chahal said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Kinsella and Chahal continue to reach out to people interested in providing masks to the University Health System, as well as brainstorm new ideas for people to help out remotely.
“[Chahal] and [Kinsella] have done a really great job in creating a project that will serve to continually support the U.Va. Hospital’s need for supplies,” Taylor said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “They have gotten creative in designing a way to outsource the mask manufacturing and purchasing to as many people as possible. Like them, they realized a lot of people want to help and are willing to. They just need to know what to do and where to go.”
University students and their loved ones can ship the masks they’ve sown or purchased through the CSSC Amazon wishlist or Cville Craft Aid to the volunteer office mailing address. If they live nearby, they can drop them off directly at the University donation site.
Whether the masks arrive fresh off sewing machines or from warehouses across the country or whether someone donates industrial-sized bottles of hand sanitizer or a solitary roll of cleaning wipes, the donations are welcomed.