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As demand surges for personal protective equipment, donations fill gaps

Max Schulte
Lisa Swisher holds a bin of homemade masks outside her sewing shop in Fairport.

As the need for protective gear like masks and gloves increases with the spread of COVID-19, local hospitals have said their supply chain has remained intact.

For some people outside of hospitals, though, it’s been increasingly difficult to get access to that equipment.

Ambulance services say they’ve had orders of masks denied. Doctors' offices say they’ve gotten laughs from vendors when they check on orders placed weeks ago.

“We’ve been gingerly allocating our masks,” said Andy Ophardt, the office manager for an internal medicine doctor in Brighton.

“It’s right that the hospitals get first priority, but it is definitely tight for us.”

Fortunately, Ophardt said, the office has many fewer in-person visits than usual as they use telemedicine to limit the chance of virus transmission. He expects his supply can last a couple of weeks, as long as remote appointments remain the norm.

But food pantries and emergency shelters can’t see clients remotely.

“It can be a real struggle for them,” said Jen Cathy, the chief impact officer at United Way of Greater Rochester.

The United Way has launched a “crisis fund” to quickly raise money and distribute resources to local nonprofits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cathy said those resources will now include personal protective equipment.

“We definitely are supporting organizations who are really on the front lines, doing the work that very much feels like health care work and looks like health care work, but don’t have access to PPE.”

Mask-making supplies crowd the floor of Sew Creative in Fairport in this photo provided by owner Lisa Swisher.
Credit Lisa Swisher / Sew Creative
Sew Creative
Mask-making supplies crowd the floor of Sew Creative in Fairport in this photo provided by owner Lisa Swisher.

Cathy said the United Way prefers monetary donations, but it will also accept donations of homemade masks.

Hospitals in the University of Rochester and Rochester Regional Health systems are also accepting PPE donations.

Thousands of homemade masks are being funnelled through Sew Creative, a Fairport shop owned by Lisa Swisher.

Her shop is closed, Swisher said, but the floor is full of boxes of supplies -- elastic bands, cloth, and masks in various stages of completion.

“Everyone is interested in helping,” she said. “They want to make masks for themselves, they want to make masks for their family, but mostly they want to make masks to help the people that are helping other people.”

A loose affiliation of physicians from across Rochester’s hospital systems have been contributing homemade masks, hoping to build a backstop in case standard-issue masks run out at their workplaces.

Completed masks ready for donation at Sew Creative in Fairport.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News
Completed masks ready for donation at Sew Creative in Fairport.

Swisher said she’s already donated thousands of masks and is coordinating distribution of thousands more.

At the United Way, Cathy said the organization has ordered hundreds of thousands of surgical masks. It’s actually easier to get one large order fulfilled than dozens of smaller ones from separate groups, she said.

Those masks, along with hand sanitizer, gloves and gowns will go to nonprofit groups that the United Way said are providing essential services during the epidemic.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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