Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
The novel coronavirus pandemic is rampant across the United States. In Northern California’s San Francisco Bay Area, by mid-April, more than 6,700 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and there were over 200 deaths. A severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers also posed a dangerous threat.
Tzu Chi USA volunteers in Northern California had begun mobilizing a response in March, setting up their NorCal PPE Project Team mid-month, to take charge of procuring PPE for distribution. The team’s goal is to respond to hospitals’ PPE supply needs promptly to effectively support frontline healthcare workers.
Overcoming Challenges to Procuring Supplies
The NorCal PPE Project Team immediately encountered challenges as it sought to procure supplies of medical masks and other PPE for distribution to hospitals in the Bay Area. Chijen Huang, the lead coordinator of the project, found that although team members tried to utilize various purchasing channels, they discovered that the supplies were out of stock on the market.
The team broadened its efforts, obtaining some PPE through Tzu Chi USA volunteers and private donations from community members, the goods often coming from as far as Taiwan and China. Despite some success, the number of supplies obtained still couldn’t meet the demand caused by the rapid increase of confirmed cases as the pandemic marched on.
Faced with the demand for PPE from various hospitals that submitted requests, the team spent a lot of time internally coordinating priorities and quantity to achieve the best results at this critical time.
Tzu Chi volunteer Chijen Huang, who works for a technology company in the Bay Area, began working remotely from home following the shelter-in-place order. Messages from the PPE project team would come in during the day or while he was in online meetings.
Except for a quick reply, he then had to respond in the evening, making arrangements for the delivery of supplies over the phone or online and even driving to the homes of Tzu Chi volunteers or community residents to collect donated PPE.
Sometimes Chijen’s activities as part of the NorCal PPE Project Team extended late into the night. Yet, they were necessary to expedite Tzu Chi volunteers’ efforts to support frontline healthcare workers by getting donated PPE into their hands as quickly as possible.
Supporting Frontline Healthcare Workers
On the NorCal PPE Project Team, Samantha Mahaffey was responsible for contacting hospitals and responding to requests for medical supplies, often referred by hospital staff, friends, and even Tzu Chi volunteers. She vividly remembers the response after the healthcare facilities got donated supplies: “Every hospital medical staff member who received a donation of PPE always expressed gratitude for Tzu Chi’s love and care.”
The Tzu Chi volunteers did their best to confirm the needs of the healthcare institutions and contact information promptly. The hospitals always appreciated the speed of response to their severe shortage of PPE, and the number of supplies delivered. Samantha shares that all the volunteers making deliveries reported receiving positive feedback from every hospital, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
The volunteers in charge of hospital contacts also managed the relations with hospitals in Northern California, from initial communications to delivery of PPE, and then tracked subsequent needs, requests, and follow-up donations.
When Tzu Chi volunteers in Northern California began receiving requests for PPE in March, the team expedited delivery of medical supplies to two major hospitals that had admitted a surge of patients infected with COVID-19.
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center received a donation of 4,000 surgical masks and 510 N95 respirators, and the Emergency Department of Kaiser Permanente’s San Jose Medical Center received 4,000 surgical masks and 475 N95 respirators.
The generous amount of PPE donated was difficult to come by, especially when such medical supplies are not readily available on the market right now. Yet, it brought peace of mind to many starting with the Tzu Chi volunteers who made it possible, extending to frontline healthcare who could be more at ease as they save lives and help patients, who in turn benefited too: Truly, a cycle of love.
Patience and Perseverance Pay Off
The volunteers on the NorCal PPE Project Team had to practice patience during their relief efforts. They were sometimes obliged to wait for the PPE they had procured to be delivered to the Northwest Region’s offices in San Jose, California, knowing that any delays would affect their planned distribution itinerary.
Yuhan Tsai, a Tzu Chi volunteer in the General Affairs Department at the Northwest Region’s campus, was in charge of transportation of the PPE, communications with the logistics company involved in the process, inventory of supplies, and so on.
In the beginning, receiving the PPE from the logistics company was a challenge, as the driver arrived at the gate two or three times and assumed the campus was closed. And so he left without asking to make sure, and it was too late for him to return that day by the time Yuhan realized what had happened.
To avoid having this reoccur, Yuhan, anxious to receive the PPE promptly, decided to wait outside the gate on the day of each scheduled delivery. The month of March in Northern California is still quite cold, but he insisted on never missing another delivery.
And when the PPE arrived, Yuhan would make sure all the boxes of supplies, sometimes nearly 20, were brought inside, even unloading them himself. Next, he carefully sprayed the containers with disinfectant and wiped them clean with a cloth. Finally, he would move the goods to the campus warehouse for storage.
As he went about his work, wearing protective goggles and masks, carefully unloading, cleaning, organizing and storing the supplies for later distribution, Yuhan, who is over 60 years of age, was sometimes asked if the task was hard for his body to handle. Without complaint, he would reply: “Lives are at risk, and these supplies can save people. It’s my duty to take care of it.”
Working Together While Protecting Others
Later, the sorting of supplies was carried out by Tzu Chi volunteer Rachel Lin, her husband, and their daughter, the family working as a unit, thereby helping to maintain social distance with other volunteers. As Rachel explained, “We think it’s a good idea. This is an opportunity for our family of three to do good deeds together.”
Tara Wu, the 17-year-old daughter of Rachel Lin, was born in 2003 when SARS broke out. She didn’t expect that one day, she would experience the situation of a pandemic and felt that the opportunity to organize the medical supplies with her parents was a blessing. Despite wearing a mask for the whole day, with joy in her eyes, she said, “This is a good thing to do to help others. We can also contribute our love and care. This is why I came.”
A Team Effort Succeeds
Tzu Chi USA’s NorCal PPE Project Team, alongside healthcare, logistics, administrative support, and community volunteers, worked together in a timely manner to deliver PPE to medical facilities in Northern California’s Bay Area.
By the end of April, Tzu Chi USA had donated a total of 72,700 surgical masks, more than 15,300 KN95 respirators, and 980 N95 respirators, as well as various other personal protective equipment that was of immediate use to frontline healthcare workers.
The pandemic has not yet ended, and so Tzu Chi USA’s donations of PPE in Northern California are ongoing. Thanks to the efforts of the NorCal PPE Project Team, the quantity of medical supplies distributed is increasing. The group continues gathering love and kindness, everyone working together, aiming to support healthcare workers as long as need be.
Join hands with Tzu Chi USA in maintaining such efforts nationwide. Together, we can help save lives as the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold.