Most of Redemptorist Father Bruce Lewandowski’s congregation at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Highlandtown has been stuck inside for days, some feeling helpless as the novel coronavirus has rapidly spread across the country. But when a call went out for much need medical supplies, Father Lewandowski knew he had found a way to give his parishioners some purpose.
“We need to do something to be able to help the medical professionals. So, when this came along, I think everybody was just waiting to jump on it,” Father Lewandowski said. “People want to feel useful, and they want to feel like they’re doing something to help the sick.”
The predominately Hispanic congregation, also known as Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, is one of four churches in Baltimore acting as drop-off sites for the Baltimore Health Professionals Mutual Aid Cooperative every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until March 29. The group is seeking donations of personal protective equipment (or PPE) such as N95 masks, surgical masks, face shields, goggles, isolation gowns, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer.
The supplies will be donated to the Baltimore City Health Department, where they will be distributed to frontline health clinics such as Health Care for the Homeless and other facilities that care for some of the most vulnerable populations in the city.
Julius Ho, a resident physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is one of the leaders of the newly formed Baltimore Health Professionals Mutual Aid Cooperative. Ho said hospitals and other health care facilities are short on the much-needed gear because of a number of factors.
First off, Ho said demand is at an all-time high with nearly every country around the world seeking medical supplies. Meanwhile, many of these items are manufactured in China, which shut down its economy earlier this year in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19.
It’s a classic high-demand, low-supply situation but with possibly deadly consequences, Ho said.
Without protective gear, health workers can easily contract COVID-19. In outbreaks in other countries, many health care workers were infected and died of the disease. Ho said he’s hearing reports of medical-supply shortages in more hard-hit areas, forcing doctors and nurses to protect themselves in less-effective ways, using bandanas and scarves.
“Fortunately, in Baltimore, we’re not at that point yet,” Ho said. “But a lot of the clinics and the hospitals that we’re working at are already implementing measures to try to conserve and ration these valuable PPE as much as they can.”
Ho said the biggest need is N95 masks, which are also used by workers in other industries such as construction.
“When doctors and nurses are caring for patients with COVID, which is a respiratory illness, they wear in N95 masks during the highest-risk procedures so that anything that becomes aerosolized from the patient’s mouth or nose doesn’t pass to the health care provider,” Ho said.
Until a few weeks ago, people could easily find N95 masks at a local hardware store.
“There are a lot of individuals who might have them lying around in their garage. Even tattoo parlors and nail salons use the regular face masks and disposable gloves,” Ho said. “Folks in the creative arts wear masks when they’re spraypainting or sculpting or woodworking.”
The drive is one of many efforts to support the medical community. The Catholic High School of Baltimore in East Baltimore recently donated supplies from its science labs to Mercy Medical Center. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., also recently found about 5,000 N95 masks in its crypts, purchased years earlier during another health scare. After confirming the masks were safe to use, the cathedral donated them to local hospitals.
Father Lewandowski said the churches started the drive on Wednesday and his parish has already received cleaning supplies and face shields. He put out the call on local Hispanic radio stations and on social media and he’s confident that the community will be able to help.
“We have a lot of folks in construction and restaurant work who typically would use rubber gloves and mask and things like that,” Father Lewandowski, referring to his parishioners and neighbors in Southeast Baltimore.
Lewandowski said the drive has been set up to follow proper social-distancing guidelines. Donors can drop off the items outside of the church at a safe distance (6 feet or more) and then return home.
“This is going to be a big boost for folks because they want to feel like they’re connected to the church, but also that they’re helping people this time,” Father Lewandowski said. “The hard thing is people just don’t want to sit at home. And it’s hard to understand that by doing that, we’re helping people.”