By Rose Hoban

A group of health care workers in Charlotte has started an initiative to gather personal protective equipment from the community for front line doctors, nurses and other health care personnel in area hospitals.

The grassroots effort started with two women living in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood, both doctors. Emergency medicine physician Gloria Tsan was talking to her neighbor, who works in an outpatient clinic. They began talking about the general lack of personal protective equipment, known as PPE, for health care workers directly treating patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

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Tsan described how she now has to use an N95 mask, which is able to filter out 95 percent of all very small particles the size of viruses. In the past, she would use one mask for one patient and then discard it. Now, masks are rationed to one per day.

So, Tsan said she doesn’t want to take the mask off and degrade the elastic bands that insure a tight fit.

“I drink as much water as I can,” at the start of her shift, she said. “I might think, ‘Okay, I’m thirsty, I want to get a glass of water,’ but if I get a glass of water now I’m going to waste this mask and then I’m not gonna get a new one.”

So, these days, she’s leaving on her mask for her entire 10-hour shift at the hospital.

Neighborhood effort

Tsan lives around the corner from Sheila Natarajan, a physical medicine doctor, whose private clinic was mostly closed and she’s instead seeing a lot of patients via telehealth.

“We had some N95s, they were the commercial grades that I had available for our clinic,” she said. “We went to telemedicine, so we didn’t need it. So I walked them over there.”

The two women got talking and when Natarajan heard about the changes Tsan was having to make at work, she wanted to do something.

we see a mask, goggles and bandana, the makeshift personal protective equipment for an ED doc
Emergency medicine physician Gloria Tsan shows off the personal protective equipment she’ll wear for an entire shift to protect herself from COVID-19: goggles, an N95 mask covered by a surgical mask so it won’t get soiled, and a bandanna to keep her hair covered. Photo provided by Gloria Tsan

They brainstormed a name and hashtag, #CLTgivePPE, and got onto social media to ask people who may have N95 masks and other protective equipment in their houses or workplaces that they’ve been holding onto to pass them along.

“This virus is so scary that people did kind of hoard this kind of stuff in the beginning,” said Nikki Richardson, an emergency medicine resident physician who got involved with the effort.

“I think that communicating with people effectively and saying, ‘you guys don’t need this but we do,’ helped people decide to donate them.

“If you are staying home, if you’re social distancing, like you’re supposed to, you don’t need the protection because you’re not out in the public, but we are,” she said.

Bins in the yard

Natarajan, Tsan and others started by asking people to leave their unused PPE in bins in their front yards.

People began showing up with just a few pieces of equipment, or unopened boxes of masks, and some, such as people from construction companies, showed up with boxes full. The traffic on the women’s front lawns quickly increased, Natarajan said.

shoes a cardboard box filled with commercial-grade N95 masks and goggles
A box of donated personal protective equipment, in particular goggles and construction-grade N95 masks. Photo courtesy: Liz Winer

Through their social media outreach, they got connected to Liz Winer, from the Winer Family Foundation, who had also been concerned about the shortages.

They all joined forces, and now had a little bit of money to do some publicity and organizing.

One difference in their effort is that most drives for donated PPE have required donors to give only full, unopened boxes of supplies, rather than a handful that may have been in someone’s workshop, unused.

“We are hoping that people will say, ‘Okay, I have 10 [masks]. It’s not perfect, it’s not the thousands or millions we need, but it’s something,” Winer said.

For example, Richardson received a box of old N95s that her grandmother had in the basement after a construction project decades ago.

Scaling up

Through Winer’s contact list the group got connected.

“Liz really helped us make connections and in the community of people that could really further this. Literally in a matter of like one or two days, we were on the phone with the hospital systems,” Natarajan said.

Meanwhile, it was becoming apparent that collecting things in people’s front yards was unsustainable.

“We were wondering if there was a way that we could get some central organization to collect the donations,” Natarajan said.

Another of Winer’s connections came through: Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, where members of the public usually drop off old clothes and appliances for sale in their thrift store. Like many other businesses, the organization had closed.

“Goodwill generously agreed to reopen two of their locations and either hired or restaffed those locations,” Natarajan said. “They also donated their transportation systems to help with the pickup and delivery of all PPE donated goods. That was just tremendous.”

That effort starts today.

Goodwill will open two of its Charlotte locations for donation drop-offs on Thursdays & Saturdays, from noon – 4 p.m.

  • Goodwill Opportunity Campus, 5301 Wilkerson Blvd.
  • Goodwill Ballantyne, 16025 Lancaster Highway

The next thing Natarajan and Winer have in their sights is to get other, locally produced PPE into the hands of front line workers.

The two women reached out to Charlotte Latin School, where a group of students prototyped and created reusable face shields for health care workers to protect them from droplets and sprays.

And Natarajan launched a GoFundMe campaign to purchase masks that, although they’re not N95s, could provide health care workers with more protection than they would get from just wearing surgical masks.

shows a female physician with her personal protective equipment
Gloria Tsan demonstrating another personal protective equipment rig: N95 mask, covered by a surgical mask, with a face shield designed and manufactured by students from Charlotte Latin School. Photo credit: Gloria Tsan

In addition, the women are coordinating with local crafters who are sewing loose surgical masks for use by patients in clinics and waiting rooms. The surgical masks are not able to protect people from acquiring COVID-19, but they can reduce the possibility that people who have the virus will transmit to others.

Natarajan said the entire effort has left her inspired.

“The amount of innovation, ingenuity, community outreach, working together, I mean sectors coming together and crossing paths to figure out a way, wow,” she said. “For the devastation that COVID is wreaking, this is the people, the community coming together.

“It’s heartwarming in so many ways.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...