By Michael McDowell
Hundreds of New Yorkers are dying of coronavirus every day. As the city approaches the apex of the pandemic, grim scenes have begun to emerge from its hospitals, where health care professionals must soon begin to prepare to work without personal protective equipment, according to a report in the Daily News.
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, includes items like N95 masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves, which are essential for the health care professionals who are working on the front lines; without it, they themselves stand at increased risk of contracting coronavirus.
One Upper West Sider saw it coming, and got to work.
“Our mission is to connect health care providers with the protective gear that will keep them safe and keep us safe,” said Richard DiBella, founder of nonprofit Shields for Heroes. “We want to be an organization that finds need and addresses it immediately and swiftly.”
DiBella, a production designer accustomed to sourcing unusual materials on tight deadlines, organized a dozen similarly situated colleagues and professional acquaintances in television and theater—from props masters to art directors to producers—as the pandemic loomed.
DiBella first sourced spare N95s, after spotting the #GetMePPE hashtag on Instagram, which health care professionals have been using for several weeks to informally locate supplies via their social networks as formal stock has dwindled.
“Anybody that works with acrylic or solders or works in a hazardous environment where they might be using inks or solvents, N95s are often required to be used,” DiBella explained. “A few weeks ago, hospital administration was chastising people for using the hashtag. Now, the hospitals themselves are asking for the gear.”
Enter Shields for Heroes.
“We’ve been able to connect doctors with actual N95s; we’ve been able to connect hospitals with goods that they need immediately; we’ve been able to connect manufacturers with raw supplies,” he explained.
DiBella ramped up his effort when he realized the city and state wouldn’t be able to keep up with the needs of health care professionals.
“As soon as the governor made a call for vendors and suppliers and manufacturers to enter the bidding process, I entered the governors bidding process, and I could tell that time was of the essence and that this bureaucratic process wasn’t going to work quickly enough and the production lines weren’t going to be fast enough to meet the immediate need,” he said.
“I knew I could get a product into the market sooner than the commercial suppliers could—I knew I could get something into the hands of people that needed it faster than the bureaucratic process.”
This week, Shields for Heroes delivered bulk supplies to Downstate Hospital in Brooklyn, and the group’s 3D-printed face shields are currently being reviewed by emergency room personnel at several area hospitals.
Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges the unprecedented need, although it stipulates that items not approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) should only be used as a last resort.
“It’s an extraordinary and shocking scenario. It’s going to be as bad in the United States as it was in Wuhan,” a doctor at a Manhattan hospital told the Rag.
“I am flabbergasted, I am unnerved, I am at a loss. I never imagined we would be reusing N95s, that I would be trying to conserve one mask for an entire day,” the doctor said. “I do not begrudge my hospital and I think they’ve done the best that they can. Even if they started buying up enough PPE months ago, we would have burned through that pretty quickly.”
Will items like unapproved face shields meet the urgent need?
“At the end of the day, for a face shield, you just need a piece of plastic that you can see through, that’s waterproof, and especially for those who need protection when they do intubation, it’s going to make a huge difference,” the doctor said.
Shields for Heroes is not alone, and industrious groups nationwide are supplying health care professionals with the resources they need to protect themselves while working around the clock to save the lives of those who have fallen ill.
That includes Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
“Most recently, I heard from First Robotics, a nonprofit, which wanted to donate 425 goggles that can serve as PPE for health care workers,” Brewer wrote in her coronavirus newsletter on Friday. “I connected them to Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem and got them delivered today (4/3/2020). I also fielded a call from an Upper West Sider who actually owns a mask-making plant in China, and we got 25,000 masks donated to the NYPD. And I heard from TikTok, the online video company, which donated 50,000 masks in total to Harlem Hospital and Elmhurst Hospital.”
Meanwhile, Shields for Heroes has raised more than $20,000, and has received donations from as far away as Kuwait, Japan, and Germany.
DiBella has been locating and shipping supplies around the clock.
“Last week I was working 5:30am until 10pm,” he admitted.
How can Upper West Siders get involved?
“We are definitely interested in organizing further with anyone who is interested in lending a hand. At this time, the most useful resource to us is funding. We have plans to scale our 3D-printing operation, and we have plans to scale our supply chain to several local factories.”
For DiBella, it’s an opportunity to have a tangible impact in the fight against the pandemic, in which he hears an echo of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I feel like I’m doing something, and putting myself to use for the greater good,” he said. “Our plan is to continue this mission until such a time that every health care provider is provided [with PPE] anytime they request it.”
The City has a supply registration page here. More information as to what types of supplies are accepted is here. A PPE specific form is here. New York City Economic Development Corporation has COVID-19 support form here.