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COVID-19 Updates, News, University News

Brown librarians, medical students spearhead donation efforts to health care workers

Community members donate masks, thermometers to workers on front line of COVID-19 pandemic

By
University News Editor
Thursday, April 2, 2020

As healthcare workers across the state face shortages of personal protective equipment as they tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, some likely and unlikely heroes are helping to provide them with the proper supplies, including librarians and future doctors.

In addition to various labs across campus, University libraries are lesser-known repositories of protective N95 respirators and surgical masks. Library archivists who preserve special collections are provided with a stock of such masks each year in order to properly respond to mold outbreaks, usually caused by “water intrusions,” said Head of Preservation, Conservation and Library Annex Michelle Venditelli. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly progressed in the days leading up to the University’s transition to remote learning and evacuation of students, Venditelli realized that the library’s supply of masks could be directed to health care workers. “It was becoming clear to me that this was becoming a bigger issue,” she said. “I thought, ‘We shouldn’t be sitting on these.’”

After raising the possibility of donating the supply, Venditelli was connected to University’s Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin, who had been helping to facilitate a campus-wide effort to collect PPE for donation and coordinating with labs to collect supplies. 

Venditelli remotely directed Deputy Librarian Nora Dimmock, who had been working on campus as an essential worker in the libraries, to locate and collect the masks that had been locked away. Dimmock then handed the 140 masks off to Library Technical Assistant James Chapin to be delivered to the appropriate donation site. 

“It was a team effort,” Venditelli said. “I had this idea from home, but it was really Nora who was on the front lines collecting everything, and (Chapin) being able to deliver them to wherever they were needed. It’s kind of a crazy time, so I have some great colleagues.”

Librarians were not alone in their advocacy and community coordination to get PPE to health care workers. Medical students Alyssa Gonzalez MD’21 and Vivian Chan MD’21, along with 10 other volunteers, started the #GetUsPPE Rhode Island campaign and donation drive, drawing inspiration from other successful PPE drives across the country. As the pandemic worsened, “I was kind of at a loss of what to do with myself,” Chan said. “It felt kind of selfish just studying.”

The group partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Health to help spread awareness of their efforts to collect donations from businesses and individuals with extra supplies of PPE. RIDOH staff “are helping coordinate giving masks to non-hospital (medical facilities), like nursing homes, that are really high-risk for patients who get COVID,” Chan said. While donations made directly to emergency rooms only directly benefit hospital workers, RIDOH is “distributing to organizations and clinics who can’t get masks,” she added. 

The group started a Twitter page directing interested donors to a link to a form to coordinate donations with RIDOH. “After we started the Twitter account, we saw a spike in the amount of people who were completing the form,” Gonzalez said. “That was really good to see, and kind of reassurance that we’re making some difference.” Their Twitter account, @GetUsPPE_RI, currently has over 140 followers, and their first tweet appeared 6,000 times on users’ feeds or search results.

Additionally, part of the team is dedicated to coordinating radio interviews with stations including Rhode Island Public Radio, WPRI and iHeartRadio, in order to further broaden the reach of their messaging to those who may not be active on social media. 

Because many interested donors may instinctively think to donate directly to hospitals and emergency rooms, “RIDOH felt that their biggest need was getting the link out,” Chan said. “People don’t realize that RIDOH is actually giving (donations) to frontline workers.” 

Gonzalez and Chan, along with their group members, hope to use their social media platform to elevate the mission of RIDOH and provide up-to-date information on the progression of the crisis, as well as other materials that people may be able to donate. RIDOH recently requested that the group promote donations of thermometers in particular, which many people need in order to “self-assess for fever and worsening symptoms,” Gonzalez said. 

The group has contacted 217 businesses so far asking them to donate supplies and serve as hubs for customers to donate their own materials. “The Nitro Bar has actually been a great resource for us, they’ve been really pushing people to donate and they have a bin there,” Gonzalez said. 

Though not every business has been able to donate to RIDOH, “people have been really great about spreading the word, even if they can’t personally help.” 

Other medical students spearheading similar initiatives at their own institutions are learning from one another through collaboration and knowledge-sharing. “There’s a national Slack workspace for all the medical schools that are doing this,” Chan said. Students from Tulane University, for example, shared the types of businesses they were reaching out to, and Chan also received particularly valuable tips from students from Georgetown University. “There’s a lot of sharing of knowledge and best practices,” she said. 

Gonzalez emphasized that in addition to directing willing donors to the RIDOH drop-off site, their group is also coordinating donation pick-ups for those who don’t want to leave their homes. To set up a pick-up, she added that interested donors can reach out to the group directly at getusppe.ri@gmail.com

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