As doctors around the country face shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), a group of University alumni have banded together to supply masks to alumni serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers is run by Brian Sheng ’18, Rel Lavizzo-Mourey ’02, and Eric Sheng, Brian Sheng’s brother and an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania. Since March 26, they have procured 20,000 surgical masks and 3,000 KN95 masks, and have shipped the supplies directly to alumni healthcare workers. Four thousand pieces of PPE have already arrived as of April 9.
As the CEO of Asia Horizon, a private equity investment firm specializing in the hemp and cannabis industry in China, Brian Sheng brings expertise in conducting business between China and the United States to the group.
Sheng was in China between January and March during the country’s peak of the coronavirus pandemic and witnessed the measures the Chinese government enacted to protect its citizens.
“The country as a whole mobilized to provide the resources necessary and coordinate the efforts to contain the virus,” Sheng said. “But when I looked at what was happening in the U.S. when I returned in around early March, I realized that we were not prepared to face what was about to come.”
According to Sheng, one reason for this lack of preparation in the United States was the difficulty of navigating the supply chain process.
“As the conditions worsened in the U.S., I realized that perhaps the fastest way [to supply masks] was simply to get supplies right into the hands of doctors and healthcare workers in the frontlines who actually need them without having to bother with a lot of the red tape around procurement and all the things you see in the news,” Sheng said.
Sheng began working to supply masks directly to University alumni in the healthcare profession. A team of almost 30 people in China validates supplies, secures inventory, and ships the packages. Sheng sources the masks from a group of approved factories in China.
Lavizzo-Mourey, the owner of the apparel and recreational sports businesses Traveler Surf Club and Silver Lining Bespoke, connected with Sheng through a mutual friend around March 17.
Lavizzo-Mourey manages much of the American portion of the initiative by coordinating fundraising efforts and connecting with healthcare providers. She spearheaded the creation of a GoFundMe campaign that has raised $15,341 as of April 12.
Her mission to help healthcare providers was inspired by hearing about the struggles many of her friends in the healthcare profession were facing.
“Those doctors and nurses and health care providers who are on the front lines are really the ones who we want to hold up the most and have the community help get them what they need,” she said. “Because if they get what they need, then we’re all safer.”
Lavizzo-Mourey hopes to continue working with Sheng for as long as necessary.
“It’s hard to think about stopping anything until [the mask shortage] starts to taper, and so far, unfortunately, it’s not tapering, it’s only getting worse,” she said. “So that’s the bummer side of it, but if we can kind of come together and rally as classmates and as a University that’s dedicated to service, I think that we’ll be able to hopefully make an impact.”
The shortage of PPE is affecting doctors all over the country. Dana Guyer ’02, a palliative care doctor at Rhode Island Hospital and Lifespan Cancer Institute, explained the unsanitary masking procedures some doctors are facing.
“Initially we were using masks until they were no longer usable, so people were using them for a week or two at a time,” she said.
Guyer is currently awaiting a shipment of masks from Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers.
“I hope that will allow us to have enough masks to use them safely and appropriately so that we’re keeping ourselves and our patients safe,” she said.
Kana McKee ’02 and Sandra Oza ’02 received the first shipments of surgical masks from Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers.
McKee is a physician specializing in palliative care at the San Francisco Veteran’s Affairs Hospital. On April 3, McKee received one of Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers’ first shipments of 2,000 surgical masks.
To give a sense of the scale of the shortage in PPE, McKee explained how long the 2,000 masks will last.
“2,000 masks sounds like a lot, and I think to do universal masking procedures for our entire hospital, that’s probably estimated to be like a two to three day supply,” she said.
Every piece of PPE assists in the hospital’s mission to keep its patients safe.
“What [the donation] means to us is that it allows us to be really careful and make sure that staff are protected, that patients are protected, so that we’re making sure that we do our part to try to keep the cases as low as possible,” McKee said.
“Next week, I’ll be in the hospital, and I’ll probably be one of the lucky people because of the donation from Brian [Sheng] to be able to wear a mask when I go in and to feel like I am protecting my patients,” she added.
McKee also described how support from others has helped her get through the novel coronavirus crisis.
“I think just knowing that there are people who care and are willing to pitch in and do something to help those who are frontline providers means a lot psychologically,” she said.
Oza works as a general internist at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York City. She described her experience being on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.
“It has been stressful and very busy, and it’s been humbling to see the dedication and compassion that healthcare workers have demonstrated in rising to this unprecedented challenge,” Oza said.
Oza received a shipment of 1,000 surgical masks from Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers on April 3. She brought the masks to the Montefiore Department of Medicine offices so that they could be distributed throughout the Montefiore Hospital System.
Oza expressed her gratitude to Medical Supplies for Frontline Hospital Workers.
“I’m tremendously grateful to Rel and to Brian and to all of the alumni who are contributing and who are making donations, like the one that I was fortunate to receive, possible for other Princeton alumni who are working in healthcare on the frontlines at other other health care systems and other hospitals,” she said.
For Oza, this initiative is about more than just about PPE. It has also reminded her that she can always rely on the University community.
“At a time when we’re all being asked to maintain social distance, I think one thing that I’ve found to be really grounding in all of this is just maintaining ties to the different communities that I am fortunate to count myself a part of, and the Princeton community is one of those,” she said.