Universities may be closed to students for the foreseeable future, but some professors are still in their labs and springing into action to contribute to the coronavirus response effort.
Take Peter Kofinas, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Maryland. He’s worked on projects with Anthony Sandler, the surgeon-in-chief at Children’s National Hospital in the District, and recently Dr. Sandler let Mr. Kofinas in on a disquieting truth.
“We’re working together anyway, so we said why not try to produce more masks and try to produce, in general, protective equipment at this time,” Mr. Kofinas said.
Now Mr. Kofinas is studying a type of polymer he can use to create surgical masks to donate to hospitals, and some associate professors in the department have refocused their energy on producing a simple hand sanitizer to give out to local first responders.
It’s become necessary at this point of the coronavirus pandemic for hospitals and individual health care workers and first responders to seek out donations from the general public.
Some have popped up in unexpected places — most notably last week when a stonemason working in the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral came across unopened boxes containing 5,000 N95 respirator masks, which are in high demand in the health care sector.
The cathedral donated 3,000 of the masks to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and 2,000 to Children’s National.
“People have sort of found a storage of masks they weren’t using and they say, wow, this is the time to give it to us,” Dr. Sandler said. “We’re always looking for donations, we’re always looking for new initiatives or innovative ways for dealing with the crisis. That’s what sort of makes it a community, where people step up and help out. Engineers and our researchers and our collaborators are all trying to find ways to really help.”
After further testing, Mr. Kofinas plan to begin donating his blow-spun polymer masks to hospitals like Children’s National. He added that hospital workers aren’t the only ones in need of masks and personal protective equipment.
“The fire department, they deal every day with people who have coronavirus, because they’re first responders,” he said. “When you call 911 they’re the ones that go there and deal with people … Same thing for police.”
The University of Maryland labs producing “Terpsanitizer” from a Food and Drug Administration recipe of isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera gel are donating the sanitizer to fire and police personnel in the area, including the Gaithersburg-Washington Grove Volunteer Fire Department.
The sports world has gotten in on the act. Bauer, a hockey equipment manufacturer, announced it has begun producing face shields for doctors and nurses, and Fanatics, which supplies Major League Baseball with its uniforms, has switched to making masks and gowns.
And donations are also coming in from individuals. Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Maryland, confirmed it is receiving donations from a group that includes County Council member Jolene Ivey that is sewing masks for those in need.
Other people might have spare masks at home because of their hobbies, like carpentry. That’s where national websites like mask-match.com have stepped in.
Co-founder Liz Klinger had the idea for the website when she learned the hospital her mother works in as a nurse was not providing workers with masks because they were trying to preserve them to head off a possible shortage. Not only is Ms. Klinger’s mother on the front lines of dealing with COVID-19, but she is older and has a preexisting condition.
Ms. Klinger reached out to her friend, Chloe Alpert, who worked in managing surplus medical supplies. “We both came to this conclusion of, hey, the pandemic’s here right now. We need to do something to get protection to the health care workers directly, right now,” Ms. Klinger said.
Mask-match.com gives individuals instructions on how to donate their masks to hospitals in need — using the U.S. Postal Service’s option to have a postal worker pick up the package at one’s home. It has supplied donations to mid-size hospitals and urgent care clinics around the U.S. and Canada, including the Washington region.
For larger donations or shipments from overseas, there’s a network of similar sites, like getusppe.org, chipping in. And people who don’t have masks or can’t sew can still donate money, such as to Children’s National’s COVID-19 Emergency Action Fund.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend health care providers wear N95 respirators in particular, masks that filter out tiny particles, including viruses. Not having masks puts those workers at greater risk of catching the coronavirus, which could add to the strain on the health care system overall.
“They’re not just health care workers. They’re friends and family who are going through this,” Ms. Klinger said. “And they’re basically being armed with … swords in a battle where they really need real ammunition to fight this.”