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UNC Health receives PPE donations from the community as COVID-19 strains hospitals

Construction Manager Jesús Gutierrez at a recent donation drop-off. UNC Health has asked for PPE donations from around the Triangle in the wake of COVID-19. Photo by Jennifer Player.

CLARIFICATION: The article has been updated to clarify a statement made by UNC junior Jacquelyn Hedrick.

UNC Health and WakeMed have sought donations of medical supplies from organizations and individuals across the Triangle over the past two weeks. Since the original call for materials, they’ve received over one million donations. 

The two health care systems plan to accept weekly donations at certain days and times at several different drop-off sites. UNC Health is specifically looking for donations of personal protective equipment, which includes N95 masks, surgical masks, disposable gloves, gowns and face shields.

“This situation is unprecedented, and we are asking for extra help,” Dr. Wesley Burks, chief executive officer of UNC Health, said in a March press release. 

Impact on health care staff 

Christian Lawson, clinical director of emergency services at UNC Health, said the health care system is trying to be thoughtful in balancing the use of PPE materials and the amount of inventory they have, while also considering the safety of providers, staff and patients. 

He said the highly transmissible nature of the virus means it is even more essential that health care staff have adequate supplies.

“I think what we're really trying to do is to be as prepared as possible, so many of us that are in the emergency setting, we kind of sit around and plan for the worst,” Lawson said. “But not necessarily all hospital leaders do that, and for the first time in my 20 years, we're literally talking about what would it look like to have our hospital at 150 percent capacity.”  

Jacquelyn Hedrick, a UNC junior, is a nursing assistant and clinical support technician in the Float Pool at UNC Medical Center. She said at times, she’s interacted with patients and hasn’t had the correct PPE needed. 

Specifically, Hedrick said there’s been a lack of N95 respirator masks, which are critical in the treatment of COVID-19 because they provide a higher degree of filtration of airborne particles than other kinds of masks. 

Under ordinary circumstances, Hedrick said PPE materials are typically changed between each patient. But as COVID-19 cases increase, she said the guidelines are shifting. 

For example, Hedrick said the hospital has had to stop fit testing for N95 masks — a crucial part of ensuring the effectiveness of the respirators — because they can’t afford to waste any materials. 

“I would say it's definitely different — we’re one of the premier medical institutions in the country, so it's not really often that we run out of anything,” Hedrick said. “So it's definitely a new thing to have to be mindful of.”

Hedrick said while she does get anxious about the high demand for equipment, it’s even more important that people follow social distancing guidelines to avoid becoming infected and help ease the burden on the supply chain of PPE.

“So I think if there's anything that scares me, it’s the fact that people just aren't doing what they need to do to protect themselves and protect us — we stay at work and put ourselves at risk and people can't even stay in their houses for a few weeks,” Hedrick said. “So it's frustrating. But we’re all committed to our jobs and showing up.”

Collection efforts on UNC’s campus

Lawson said prior to UNC Health sending out an official request for supplies, numerous organizations and individuals were already planning donation collection efforts and looking for ways to help.

Within the Carolina community, a number of groups have mobilized movements to collect PPE supplies. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center donated over 20,000 disposable gloves and UNC’s Makerspaces are currently working to produce face shields. 

Scott De Rossi, dean of the Adams School of Dentistry, said because the school has limited its clinical operations to dental emergencies, they’ve also been able to donate hundreds of thousands of supplies to UNC Health. Additionally, De Rossi said the school has been able to use an Ethylene Oxide gas sterilizer to decontaminate and sterilize N95 masks for UNC Health to reuse — a “game changer” when N95 supplies are already running low. 

De Rossi said the school has sterilized over 2,500 masks in the last week, and they have the capacity to treat 1,000 a day. 

“The PPE is critically important because it would be like sending a soldier into battle with a squirt gun or a BB gun, and we can't do that to our frontline health care workers,” he said. “And so we were just willing and able to do it and so glad that there's a campus-wide effort to do so and support each other.”

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“Building hope” 

Jennifer Player, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, said the organization has a longstanding partnership with UNC Health and started looking for any supplies that might be useful as soon as they heard UNC was seeking donations. She said they were able to donate a lot of materials typically used on their construction sites, such as masks, safety goggles, gloves and hand sanitizer.  

She noted that the Habitat for Humanity of Orange County likely won’t be able to donate more supplies in the near future since they donated everything they had. But she said there are other ways for volunteers to partake in local community efforts, from participating in the UNC Health’s blood drives to checking in on neighbors. 

“Part of the Habitat mission statement includes the words ‘building hope,’” Player said. “And I think in some way, this is our effort at how can we contribute and how can we help to build hope in a different way than just building houses, but to hopefully help to build up our community in a time of need.”