Health Tech Podcast

As hospitals run low on protecting gear, tech employees are on a quest to assist fill the scarcity

(BigStock Photo)

The coronavirus outbreak in Washington state has not yet reached the “peak” that some public health officials anticipate, but already ICU physicians like Mike Holmes are grappling with a dearth of necessary supplies.

Holmes described an “extreme shortage” of the masks that he and his colleagues at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle need to treat COVID-19 patients. “We are now reusing single-use masks over and over and over again,” he said.

It’s a challenge facing healthcare workers across Washington state, who are asking the general public to donate any personal protective equipment (PPE) they have. The state government’s warehouse of personal protective gear is empty. Though Washington is receiving some supplies from the federal stockpile of protective equipment, people on the front lines of the crisis say it is not enough.

But long before Washington became a hotspot for COVID-19, it was an epicenter of innovation, home to Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, and hundreds of tech startups known for creative problem-solving. Many of those innovators are now stepping up to find ways around supply chain challenges and the global shortage of protective gear for healthcare providers.

Microsoft emerged as an early responder to the crisis, leveraging its global footprint to secure supplies for its home state. The software giant is donating thousands of items, including 30,000 box lunches for families, 240,000 surgical masks, 35,000 hand sanitizers, and additional supplies, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith. The company plans to secure additional supplies and donate them as they come in.

It’s not just organizations with the resources of Microsoft that are stepping up. Individuals in the Washington business community are finding their own creative ways to get protective equipment in healthcare workers’ hands.

Rachel Popkin and other volunteers in the tech community created to help healthcare workers access personal protective equipment.

Rachel Popkin, a product manager for Google Chrome, based in Seattle, was inspired by a text message from a friend working in a Bay Area ICU. The physician asked Popkin how to spread awareness for the mask shortage hospitals everywhere are experiencing online.

Popkin realized they had a box of N95 masks in their basement, acquired during the wildfire outbreak that ravaged the Pacific Northwest two years ago. Popkin couldn’t sleep thinking about the request, so they decided to develop a simple website

“My thinking was, during this shortage if we can just connect those supplies that already exist, that are already close to the points where the hospitals need them, with the healthcare workers, we can cover a gap until the regular supply chain is able to provide,” they said.

Six days later, more than 1,300 hospitals around the country joined FindTheMask’s database of organizations that will take donations for personal protective equipment. Popkin enlisted tech workers in their network to volunteer for the project, including engineering leads Albert Wong and Graeme Roche.

“It has been incredible and humbling to see how quickly some of the most talented engineers and designers and product people in Seattle have jumped on this,” Popkin said.

In less than a week since launching, FindTheMasks joined forces with, a team of medical professionals around the country working to get protective gear to frontline healthcare workers. FindTheMasks is now providing back-end infrastructure for GetUsPPE and is serving every U.S. state and Puerto Rico.

Separately, several Washington professionals are leveraging their professional and personal connections to manufacturers in China to secure thousands of masks and ship them to Seattle more quickly than masks acquired through official channels.

On Wednesday, the #Masks4WA campaign received 6,000 KN95 masks — the Chinese equivalent of the critical N95 mask. The Masks4WA campaign is crowdfunding to support their effort through GoFundMe. Depending on how much they are able to raise, an additional shipment of 7,500-20,000 KN95 masks and 20,000 surgical masks could arrive Monday. Masks will be donated to UW Medicine, Swedish Medical Center, and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

The first #Masks4WA shipment arrived in the U.S. this week. (#Masks4WA Photo)

“We’re trying to tackle this mass shortage issue and this is the only resource we have,” Crysti Chen and entrepreneur and organizer of the Masks4WA campaign.

“The peak is going to hit soon in Washington and it’s time to up the access,” added Kate Wang, another organizer of the initiative.

Crysti Chen and fellow volunteers found a way to fast track masks to Washington.

Washington state is seeking about 65,000 N95 masks, as well as 154,000 surgical masks and thousands of gowns and face shields.

The situation creates a quandary for companies that provide personal protective equipment to their employees, like Beta Hatch. The Washington state startup grows insects as animal feed and provides workers with masks to protect against allergens. Beta Hatch CEO Virginia Emery donated 15 disposable N95 masks and one PAPR respirator to Swedish Medical Center, where Holmes works in the ICU.

“I was incredibly thankful,” he said. “I had just made a Facebook post venting as many, many physicians have. The number of people who offered supplies was very high.”

Emery is now deciding whether to donate the company’s remaining protective gear, knowing that she may not be able to restock the equipment after the pandemic is over because of supply shortages.

Amazon is in a unique position as a key resource thousands of consumers have turned to under stay-at-home orders. The company is dealing with a surge in online orders and hiring 100,000 new warehouse workers to keep up with increased demand.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attempted to allay concerns about warehouse safety last weekend, assuring employees that the company is trying to get more protective gear for workers on the frontlines. He said Amazon has ordered millions of masks for warehouse workers who cannot telecommute and are grappling with a surge in orders from homebound consumers trying to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

But Bezos said in an email to employees that none of Amazon’s mask orders have been fulfilled because they are “being directed by governments to the highest-need facilities like hospitals and clinics.”

“It’s easy to understand why the incredible medical providers serving our communities need to be first in line,” he said. “When our turn for masks comes, our first priority will be getting them in the hands of our employees and partners working to get essential products to people.”

Tech companies outside of Washington are also providing thousands of masks in their communities and beyond. Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company sourced 10 million masks for the U.S. and millions more for hard-hit European countries. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk donated 50,000 N95 masks to UW Medicine and UCLA health.

It is critical that healthcare workers have access to the protective equipment they need because they face the most exposure to the virus and they are vital for preserving lives. The highly contagious coronavirus is taking large swaths of the medical community in Europe out of commission, a fate that would be disastrous for the United States. In Spain, nearly 14 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases are medical professionals, according to The New York Times. In the hardest-hit province in Italy, 10-15 percent of doctors and nurses have been infected with the virus.

“Seeing some of our colleagues get incredibly sick, I haven’t personally had any colleagues die yet but I know some people who have,”  said Holmes, the Swedish Medical Center ICU physician. “Seeing that happen as well, I don’t know a single person who’s working in an ICU in Seattle right now who isn’t terrified of this thing.”

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