Feature: Grassroots groups in Chinese community strive to aid U.S. hospitals amid PPE shortages

Source: Xinhua| 2020-04-08 06:38:46|Editor: xuxin
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A member from the Chinese Americans Supporting Hospitals (CASH) unloads medical supplies at a hospital in Maryland, the United States, April 6, 2020. (Xinhua)

by Xinhua writer Xiong Maoling

WASHINGTON, April 7 (Xinhua) -- When Rose Xu and Liang Zhao launched an initiative to support U.S. hospitals three weeks ago, they didn't expect a newly built 20-person team would be able to help 12 local hospitals, with some 112,000 surgical masks, over 3,000 N95 masks, and beyond.

On Monday, the first batch of supplies, some 24,000 surgical masks produced in Shanghai, were delivered to Holy Cross Hospital and Suburban Hospital in Maryland, offering a timely support for doctors and nurses facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) as COVID-19 swept across the country.

On Tuesday, the group sent masks and other PPE to Kaiser Permanente and another hospital in Maryland. They'll continue to deliver more supplies to hospitals in Montgomery County, Howard County, Frederick County, Baltimore City, and Washington D.C.

"Thank you for your amazing generosity! You support is heartwarming and deeply appreciated and needed," a hospital staff sent the message to the team Monday night. In a follow-up thank-you email Tuesday, she said, "we thought you would like to know that we used a portion of your donation today!"


The grassroots initiative, called Chinese Americans Supporting Hospitals, or CASH, was started in mid-March, following co-founder Xu's visit to a local hospital, where she found that outpatient doctors didn't wear masks because they didn't have any.

"Many friends who are doctors were also loudly calling for help, saying that their hospitals and clinics are in dire need of masks and other PPE," Xu told Xinhua. "Then I figured, we shouldn't just talk the talk, but gotta walk the walk."

Xu and Zhao, who live in Montgomery County, Maryland, didn't expect the initiative launched by the two would quickly draw support from a large number of people. "We selected several who were eager to help and seemed dependable as team members, and it turns out we have a good eye for talent," Zhao teased.

Angela Men, who is in charge of contacting hospitals, told Xinhua that the overall reaction from health care professionals are "gratitude and anxiety," as there is an apparent scarcity of PPE in local hospitals.

Through WeChat, a widely used Chinese messaging app, CASH team members constantly communicate updates and exchange ideas everyday. "For the past three weeks, our key members had to work, and spent extra hours for voluntary work, we almost stayed up until 1 or 2 a.m. everyday," Xu said.

When China was heavily hit by the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, Xu joined local branch of Zhejiang University Alumni Association to donate urgently needed medical supplies to Hubei and Zhejiang provinces. "We (overseas Chinese) are really playing the full game, after donating to China we donate to America," she laughed.

Zhao told Xinhua they originally planed to help one or two hospitals with a batch of masks, and never imagined a grassroots initiative would receive such overwhelming support. "We were just trying to help," he said. "It's like the house is on fire and everyone goes to put it out."

A fundraiser organized by Zhao and others on the GoFundMe platform was able to meet the goal of 20,000 U.S. dollars within just half a day after it was launched on March 18. As of Tuesday, they have raised more than 105,000 dollars, contributed by nearly 1,000 donors, most of who come from the local Chinese community.


Weeks of working day and night taught the team one thing: making a donation is not a piece of cake. From raising money to selecting products, from contacting hospitals to transporting and distributing supplies, each step involves complex and trivial work.

"Our medical supplies go directly to the hospitals, so we had a very strict screening process, trying to select FDA approved and reasonably priced products," Xu said, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The global scramble for masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to a flood of inferior products, but has also pushed up prices, making it difficult for the team to find suitable suppliers.

"Some manufacturers and distributors do not meet the standards, and some qualified products are priced too high," said Xu, who works in the medical science field. "Meanwhile, the FDA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are constantly changing guidance, adding to the challenge of the team."

"When the price of masks is very high, the team never bid against others," said Zhao, who has a background in pharmaceutical science. "Because we know that no matter who gets the masks, they would wind up in the hands of health care workers."

After reviewing scores of options, the team made the final decision to purchase 112,500 surgical masks from a Shanghai factory, which were shipped to Maryland last week. They also managed to procure over 3,000 N95 masks, some 1,000 protective gowns, and over 300 reusable face shields, and intend to buy more.

"We've been through a lot," Xu said. "The ducks in hand have flown twice or three times," she said, using a Chinese proverb which means having what is deemed a sure thing comes to nothing.

Despite strenuous efforts, CASH team members have experienced some precious moments, with tremendous support from across the Pacific Ocean. "Many friends in China were asking us, they were so warm-hearted," Xu said. "My classmates said 'we will help you ship supplies if you need.' Friends back home are so eager to help," she said.

"When I see the doctors, I feel like they are my brothers and sisters," Zhao told Xinhua, after delivering supplies Monday afternoon. "With giving, understanding and love, the gap between people is just paper-thin."


The CASH team is just one of the many support groups among the Chinese community in the Greater Washington D.C. area, which comprises D.C., Maryland and Virginia. In a WeChat group of roughly 270 people, many donation teams and individuals exchange information frequently every day to help each other.

The group announcement listed the contact person of each team, donation platforms, as well as the hospitals that have been contacted. At the end of the notice it read: "Most of the group members are old comrades who donated to Wuhan, we work together, play the second half together!"

Xi Su, who lives in Vienna, Virginia, is the organizer of another aid group, which boasts over 30 volunteers and donates masks to doctors and nurses directly, in what he called a "targeted donation." The group mostly helps health care professionals in Virginia and D.C., and also some in Maryland and the worst-hit New York.

"We are trying to protect as many as possible," Su told Xinhua. The group already purchased 12,000 surgical masks from China's eastern Shandong Province and over 400 industrial N95 masks from Guangdong Province, most of which were delivered to local health care workers in the past week.

"Just trying to help doctors and nurses last for one week, and hopefully the supply shortages in hospitals would be eased," Su said. He estimated that over 200 local health care workers received donation from his group.

Su noted many Chinese doctors have been actively seeking mask donations for their colleagues. "Chinese doctors are the absolute backbone of the health care community in the outbreak. They protected their colleagues," he said.

Just on Monday, Su received 80 N95 masks from a volunteer in Beijing, and he immediately sent out some to those asking for help. He said he received tremendous support from Chinese and American families and friends.

"High school classmates in Shanghai, college classmates in Shenzhen, business partners in Nanjing, Ningbo, Chengdu and Shenzhen, sisters, brother-in-laws, and nieces in Hefei all helped me purchase masks," he said.

Some of the doctors who received donations offered to bring home-made bread, candy, and even fresh fish. "While maintaining social distance increases the physical distance between people, it reduces the psychological distance between people," he said.

Though largely Chinese, the aid group also includes some Indians, Ukrainians, Iranians and Turks. "We are fighting a people's war, not just with Chinese, but with other ethnic groups," he added.

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