As of April 23, the coronavirus pandemic has officially been ongoing for more than a month, with no end in sight. As authorities and health care professionals continue to try to contain the virus and treat patients, many frontline health care workers have not been able to find adequate protective gear, including face masks, to keep themselves and their patients safe. Around the United States, volunteer efforts to provide the equipment needed to fight the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, have sprung into action.
In Baltimore, Maryland, one of those efforts was spearheaded by Alyssa Cawley, 25, and Katie Heinemann, 28, both graduate students in public health. As of April 22, they’ve helped organize more than 600 volunteers, mostly students, to produce thousands of sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) and deliver them to hospitals. They spoke with Elite Daily news editor Lilli Petersen about what they’ve managed to achieve, why they think they’ve been so successful, and what young people can do to take action.
On how they got started:
Heinemann: Alyssa and I are both masters of public health students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, so we follow disease outbreaks. As soon as we heard the news out of China, we knew the coronavirus would be a huge issue.
A lot of people were calling to ask, 'How can I help?'
Alyssa and I volunteered to help at the Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) Unified Command Center right before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic on March 11. We were initially running the incoming phone line, just because that phone had to get answered and nobody was delegated to do it. A lot of people were calling to ask about testing, or doctors or nurses were calling Hopkins for guidance on protocol. The center also had people calling who were just scared. But a lot of people were calling to ask, “How can I help?” We realized we needed to centralize this so people could go to one place and volunteer.
Cawley: Katie and I had recently put together a volunteer survey to mobilize students who wanted to donate their time and volunteer for the COVID-19 response. So we created a Google Doc and sent it out to all of the schools at Hopkins: the school of public health, the school of medicine, and school of nursing — any listserv we could find. It was just a doc to indicate if you were interested in volunteering and what you were able to do, but I don't think we realized the scope of the desire to help until we actually sent that doc out. People started rolling in by the hundreds. As of April 9, we had more than 600 people interested in volunteering, which is unbelievable.
People come back again and again.
Around the same time as we made the doc, JHM had set up a warehouse with all of the materials to make PPE for frontline workers, but they didn’t have people to put it together. On March 18 — I think it was around 5 or 6 p.m. — our boss at the command center came to us and said, “We need 50 volunteers to come in at 8 tonight and put together thousands of PPE.” So we had two hours' notice, and we realized it was time to test this volunteer effort. I sent out one email to the whole list. Within the hour, we filled all 50 slots and more. We had to turn people away. People were so eager to help that the volunteers had begun to coordinate with each other to do the things we hadn’t set up, like organizing carpools to get to the warehouse. My own roommate got a ride to make PPE from somebody she had just met through the volunteer doc. We didn't even know the driver.
That first night, our volunteers worked for five hours — from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. — and made more than 1,300 PPE masks. Since then, our warehouse has been turning out around 5,000 masks a day.
On what they’ve achieved:
Cawley: Now, we have several shifts available per day, and each shift has 50 people. Some of the shifts are at weird times like 1:30 in the morning, but people still sign up for them, which is mind blowing. People come back again and again. Our volunteer slots book out three or four days in advance. In one week, we made more than 25,000 masks.
Heinemann: We're making face shields because it's the thing our JHM health care providers need most and that our volunteers can make safely. It’s essentially a foam block glued onto a clear plastic face sheet with a piece of elastic around the back to hold it in place. With just an N95 mask and a face shield, you can be adequately protected from COVID-19 infection — and then you don't have to use Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), which are the moonsuit getups, which are in short supply.
People were just really grateful to have someplace to show up to do a tangible thing they knew would help.
Cawley: People are doing what they can [to help]. Our volunteer transportation team has delivered thousands of supplies to at least six hospitals — as of April 11, it was 18,000 PPE kits, PAPRs, supplies to make PPE kits, four pallets of gowns, nasal swabs, draeger and N95 masks, electronics for patients, respirators, ventilators, and radios. We also have people making masks at home out of their own fabric and dropping them off to be sanitized and packaged to use in non-clinical settings.
Our volunteers have started taking on things from home, too. Our first remote volunteer opportunity was when JHM needed carabiners for its P3 fanny packs of protection gear — at the last minute they’d realized there was no way to carry N95 masks because if you put them in the fanny pack they'll get smushed and be ineffective, so they needed carabiners to hook to. The masks are already in really short supply, so the response leaders came to us like they always do and said, “We need 30,000 carabiners. Stat.”
I sent out a Google Excel sheet and I asked our volunteers to call any store they could think of that would have carabiners. People started jumping on the sheet right from their homes. By the end of the day, they had located 123 different stores that had carabiners. They called mom and pop shops, fishing tackle stores, and random art stores — places I wouldn't even think of. The volunteers picked up about 3,000 carabiners that same day, and we got a few thousand of these packs ready for the following day. Within a few days, the volunteers got all 30,000.
On what you — and others — can do to help:
Heinemann: I think a lot of people are really excited to help out. Maybe grateful is the right word; people are grateful they have things they can do. There are a lot of other volunteer lists out there, but people were just really grateful to have someplace to show up to do a tangible thing they knew would help. My roommate was thrilled to go build PPE at the warehouse. She was like, “I got out of the house, Katie. I went and built some face masks.”
Cawley: It’s been a really good way for people to go out with a purpose rather than going out and breaking the isolation rules to see friends. But people are also getting their friends together to go to the warehouse and stand 6 feet apart and build PPE, which I think is really cool. You’re social distancing and it's safe, but you're making a difference and contributing.
A little bit of organization goes a really long way.
A lot of times people think, “Oh, I don't have the resources to put something like this together.” But we’ve used the resources we have. All of our volunteer coordination has been done through things like Google Docs and Sheets, things everybody has access to. And we follow up to tell people how the things they’ve done have helped others.
Heinemann: What we’ve learned is a little bit of organization goes a really long way. It’s things like consistency and followup and telling people what we're going to do and communicating the results. Respecting your volunteers’ time is huge, too. When we get requests for tasks that aren’t a good use of people’s time, we say no.
Cawley: The biggest thing is supporting your community because we’re all struggling and we’re all in this together. It takes a village. None of this could have been done without the leadership of our other team members — Bob Maloney, Lisa Maragakis, and our colleague Ben Bigelow. You can’t be afraid to take charge.
Heinemann: Sometimes making change is just about having the guts and the confidence to say, “Yeah, this can work. I’m cocky enough to think I can do this. Let’s put together a list, and get 50 volunteers in one night.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.