Gwendolyn A. Quintana, (center) a third-year medical student headed up the PPE drive in Bexar County.
For the medical community, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have been defined by shortages: testing shortages, ventilator shortages, and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages.
While the Texas Medical Association and other health care organizations have worked hard to reverse these shortages in Texas, more than 12 county medical societies along with several alliance chapters have found a temporary workaround for the PPE famine: They're asking their communities to donate masks, gloves, face shields, or any other medical supplies that protect them from infection.
And Texans have responded.
"It's been really unbelievably humbling to see how the community has come together to help us," said Sapna Singh, MD, a Sugar Land pediatrician and past president of the Fort Bend County Medical Society. "That's perhaps the one silver lining [to the pandemic] – that patients, doctors, nurses are all seeing how much we matter to one another."
The Fort Bend society has collected more than 500 masks and other PPE, and like many other county societies, is getting the PPE first to front-line physicians – in local hospitals and primary care practices.
Major companies and organizations have stepped up to contribute, but they tend to be in larger cities like Houston, Dr. Singh says. In Fort Bend, which lies near the Gulf Coast, most of the contributions have come from ordinary people and small businesses. Many residents owned unused N95 masks and other medical equipment acquired during the cleanup from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, she says.
"People just started dropping off leftover masks," Dr. Singh said. "They were like, 'I've got 20 in my garage – I've got a whole box I never opened,' or a whole bunch of gloves they never used."
If you are interested in organizing a PPE drive through your county’s medical society or alliance, contact Pam Udall, director of the Texas Medical Association Alliance grassroots advocacy, at (512) 413-6807 or via email.
In Lubbock County, the county medical society, alliance, and medical students promoted their PPE campaign via Facebook and by contacting local businesses. The outpouring has been tremendous, says Ashley Sturgeon, MD, a dermatologist and president of the Lubbock County Medical Society. Agricultural companies, construction firms, nail salons, and dentists stepped up with contributions.
That has allowed the society to distribute 1,512 to hospitals and 1,822 to local physicians. It also has distributed hundreds of gowns, hats, shoe covers, boxes of gloves, and alcohol wipes, she says.
This clearly saves lives, but it also helps ease the stress all physicians are feeling, Dr. Sturgeon says.
"We're all on edge right now and are waiting for the other shoe to drop here in Lubbock," she said. "Doctors are afraid and they're afraid for their families and what they'll be bringing home. I think having just one mask that they knew they could have if they really needed it helped a lot of people sleep at night."
Many of the physicians say they’ve been mostly sidelined at least in part because of the PPE shortage. Those physicians provide elective procedures or services that have been largely halted so that valuable PPE can be diverted to front-line physicians and medical staff.
That's the case for Mark Glover, MD, the Austin surgeon who kicked of the Travis County Medical Society’s effort. He's seen his patient load dwindle in recent weeks.
"About 80% to 90% of what I do is elective surgery [mostly on hernias]," he said. "That’s why I'm the perfect person to take this. Me and my [business] partner still take emergency calls, still do operations, still see patients, but per the American College of Surgeons guidelines … we're really trying to limit the people going into the operating room if at all possible."
The Travis County drive started accidentally when one of Dr. Glover's neighbors pointed out that he had five N95 masks he was willing to donate.
"And I wondered who else might have N95 masks lying around that they're not using," he said.
Dr. Glover put a notice on neighborhood websites and social media asking for more donations. To his surprise, they flooded in. Travis County Medical Society became the distribution point for the 1,300 N95 masks that were contributed as well as 5,000 masks received from the Strategic National Stockpile, a national repository of medical supplies run by the U.S. government.
The society “has become a hub," he said. "We take requests and then disperse them out."
In all, Travis County’s society received more than 70,000 pieces of PPE, and the sources have been diverse. Tito's Vodka donated hand sanitizer. The Amazon TV series Panic donated boxes of unused PPE left over from the show's morgue scenes. Local OB-Gyn practices donated swab kits for COVID-19 testing.
While Dr. Glover is grateful for the community's generosity, he's aware that a PPE drive is a temporary solution to a much bigger problem.
"This is just a Band-Aid on what everybody really needs," he said.
Remember, you can find the latest news, resources, and government guidance on the coronavirus outbreak by visiting TMA’s COVID-19 Resource Center regularly.