When parents of Chinese students studying at the University of Iowa heard about shortages in the United States of personal protective equipment needed during the coronavirus pandemic, they immediately wanted to do something to help, even from some 7,000 miles away.
So a group of more than 50 parents reached out to members of the Chinese and Chinese American community in Iowa City and, soon, an international partnership was born.
The community members in Eastern Iowa had already been talking, chatting on social media. They had closely watched the virus’s impact in China and were worried about it’s arrival in Iowa. Many are members of the UI School of Medicine and knew their colleagues would be impacted directly.
“A few of my (medical school) classmates are front line fighters in Wuhan,” said Fan Lin, an associate professor in the UI College of Medicine. “Protecting medical people is so important … it’s not necessary to lose lives by not protecting them.”
In mid-March, she and about 15 others formed a group, “Eastern Iowa ‘PPE for Healthcare Workers’ Chinese American Volunteers.” The core members took on leadership roles, but more than 150 additional supporters contributed to a GoFundMe set up through the Chinese Church of Iowa City. They quickly raised more than $25,000 to help with the efforts.
The bulk of their work has been coordinating shipments of N95 and surgical masks directly from China.
With a huge influx in demand, sourcing those vital supplies has been difficult for many American hospitals and state governments alike. But with parents of UI students on the ground in China ready to help, the group has worked to overcome those challenges.
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Parents went to factories in person to make sure the masks being produced were of high quality and would meet CDC and FDA standards, and then helped find ways to ship the orders directly to Iowa City.
One parent, Min Zou, personally arranged 3,000 masks to be shipped to Iowa.
Her son was in a car accident in Iowa City three years ago, said Ying Xu, assistant director of international outreach and China recruitment in the UI Office of Admissions.
“She came to Iowa to take care of her son for one year. He was treated at UIHC and recovered fully. They saved him, and he resumed studies here,” she said. “This parent just had a very strong tie with the University of Iowa. So no wonder she donated so much of her time and money to this mask donation … I know all the parents have a similar feeling. They just feel when their children are studying here, they are part of the University of Iowa as well.”
Parent Liping Zhao, of Yancheng, China, agreed.
“We all inhabit the same planet, and I know that all human beings — no matter their ethnicity — share the same feelings concerning disasters and catastrophes, especially the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” Zhao said via email.
Haiming Chen is an engineer in UIHC’s neurosurgery department. He helped find 10 people to receive packages from that 3,000 mask donation, which could then be shipped in boxes of 300 each. It was easier to send them in small boxes to private addresses than in a large shipment that would be more likely to face scrutiny from customs officials — in both China and the United States.
Getting PPE out of China has become more difficult as the Chinese government has put more stringent regulations on exports in place, Xu said. Meanwhile, media outlets including the New York Times and NPR have reported FEMA redirecting PPE shipments coming into the United States from their original purchasers to coronavirus outbreak hot spots.
UIHC chief pharmacy officer Michael Brownlee has been one of the Iowa City hospital’s leaders focused on PPE, supply chain and preparedness. He said the donations are welcome.
“It has been a challenge. There are a lot of distributors out there that are either not following through or aren’t reputable,” he said. “Instead of thousands of face masks, we’re getting the few hundred from close connections.”
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The hospital has set up an in-kind donations website, uihc.org/kind-donations, to help the public know what supplies they need, including masks, face shields, isolation gowns, latex-free gloves, and surgeon’s scrub caps.
“Right now we have adequate PPE for our staff, but we’re watching it really closely. As patients with COVID-19 increase, we’re using more PPE,” he said.
In addition to that shipment of 3,000 masks, the group Chinese American Volunteers and parents have coordinated several other shipments. Their donations include more than 1,300 N95 masks and more than 14,000 surgical masks, plus gowns, face shields and other supplies. Most have gone to UIHC, but they’ve also sent donations to Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, Melrose Meadows Retirement Community in Iowa City and other community groups in need of protective equipment. Additional shipments are on their way.
“We live here, it’s our home that is suffering from the virus,” said Jingwei Jiang, a post doctoral fellow in neuroscience and pharmacology at the UI. “Basically, it’s an invisible war, and the front line medical worker is the soldier.”
Group member Emily Wang, an engineer at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, said they have learned a lot about supply chains and imports that they never expected to need to know.
“We have a good team and different roles. We joke that we can start a company after this. We’re experts now in everything,” she said.
Group member Jun Cao, an assistant professor in the UI College of Dentistry, said he hopes the efforts help not only the medical front line workers but the community as a whole.
“If we protect them, they can also protect us. If we lose them, there’s no one to protect us,” he said.
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