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Find the Masks: How a grassroots organization is linking hospitals to crucial PPE

Founder Rachel Popkin explains how you can help American doctors now.

Doctors and nurses across the United States face a major hurdle during their battle against Covid-19: A crippling shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Access to PPE, which includes but is not limited to N95 masks, surgical gowns, and eye gear, may be a literal life or death matter for individuals in close, repeated contact with the disease.

Governments at all levels have so far struggled to provide a solution. Grassroots organizations are stepping up instead. One of these projects is Find the Masks, a site launched on March 19, 2020, by Rachel Popkin, a senior product manager at Google.

Since launch, the site has helped people donate PPE at 2,285 donate sites across the US, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The site shows you the closest donation site to you, what they need most, and provides specific instructions on how to donate. They are not alone in this effort. Find the Masks is a member of the #GetUsPPE coalition.

To get a clear sense of what is involved in the fight for PPE, Inverse spoke with Popkin, who is under self-quarantine in Seattle, Washington. They detail how grassroots organizations can help communities across the US — and explain why this effort, while admirable, isn’t enough.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Inverse: How has Find The Masks changed since launch?

I started Find the Masks after hearing from a friend who has a position at a really well-funded hospital that they were having to ration disposable masks.

She said it wasn't only her hospital experiencing shortages; it was happening at every hospital in the country. She told me that in New York, there are nurses and doctors who are young and healthy, getting exposed to higher viral loads, and then getting very severely sick. As a result, these health care workers are on life support because they were not given the masks, gowns, and goggles they need to treat coughing patients with this incredibly infectious virus.

"If you have safety goggles in Portland, we can tell you exactly where to safely donate them."

I couldn’t sleep that night. I found an open box with N95s (masks) in my own basement that I had purchased to filter out wildfire smoke two years ago, and I started to look for a way to donate them. Then I put up a simple HTML webpage with a call for action — Find the Masks.

After that simple page went up, a team came together very quickly, including engineers from DropBox, Amazon, Google, and Imparity. Scientists, who are locked out of their lab-based jobs because of stay-at-home orders, joined us. They leap into action to keep submissions clear, accurate, and up to date.

Data quality is a critically important part of crisis response work. Our data quality volunteers include physicists, epidemiologists, electrical engineers; as well as professional data moderators based in the Philippines who’ve volunteered their time and experience.

The United States is experiencing a shortage of medical supplies, including N95 masks.

As the site grew, we added features that allow you to filter by state or item needed. So, if you have safety goggles in Portland, we can tell you exactly where to safely donate them. We added a map visualization that shows you donation sites near you, and we engineered the site so it can support millions of viewers at once.

We’re entering a new phase now where we’re working with volunteers in France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Canada to launch the same donation list and map visualization functionality in those countries where there’s a similar interest in getting grassroots donations going. PPE shortages are worldwide.

Inverse: What actionable steps can people take to help?

The first thing is: If you have in your possession N95 masks, surgical masks, non-vented goggles, protective gowns, or any other kinds of PPE, you can donate it. Go to findthemasks.com.

Look in places you might not typically consider: Many people likely have them leftover from a time they had to work around smoke, or mold, or do a carpentry project. My mom uses them for gardening.

The other thing is that many industries that are considered inessential and are under stay-at-home orders might have these supplies. So if you know anyone who is an HVAC technician, a veterinarian, a nail salon owner, a lab scientist in a field that is not related to Covid-19 research — please share the fight with them and encourage them to donate resources. Resources include more than just masks — and according to our data, gowns are increasingly in short supply.

One of my favorite stories to come out of this project so far is that it turns out that piano tuners use N95 masks and nitrile gloves. So the piano technicians’ guild sent out a newsletter urging their members to donate their supplies via Find the Masks.

Finally, if you’re a maker, our partners at getusPPE.org have a page that is full of research-validated designs and patterns for makers to get started with, that hospitals will accept. The cotton masks that people are sewing provide about 50 percent droplet protection, versus a surgical mask that can provide 100 percent. We really urge people who are sewing to take that great energy and find a research-validated pattern. This also means ordering specific filter materials, but these materials are more available than fabricated surgical masks. You can still very much help, just please follow a research-validated pattern.

Inverse: What has it felt like to build a community, especially when we are physically distanced from each other?

It has been humbling and inspiring to watch a team of such talented people come together in such a short time, using open source tools, Github, and Slack to coordinate.

I’ve worked for seven years at Google, based out of Seattle, and worked with folks in over 40 offices worldwide using tools like video calls to try to achieve that sense of presence even when we can’t be together. So, building a distributed organization was familiar to me — but the level of passion and energy that people have brought to this work, it matched my own sense of urgency and desperation.

"My hope is that as supplies start to flow through the system, the areas of obvious need will be addressed."

All of these doctors and nurses fighting for their lives, all for the want of a disposable paper mask — a tragic result of under-preparedness on the part of the government. My teammates and I are happy to offer our skills and do our part, but this work should not be our job.

Inverse: What is the future of this project?

This project is a tool that can let the government, suppliers, and manufacturers actually forecast the PPE demand, schedule shipments accordingly, and make sure they are equitably distributed across the United States.

I would love to put a call out to readers: If you work for an agency or a company that’s having a problem with forecasting demands and knowing where to send things, please reach out to us. I’ve heard a lot about charitable shipments being focused on New York because New York is obviously in crisis, but Georgia, for example, is also in crisis. I know that because that’s the data we have because we are a grassroots project where nurses on the front line are entering their needs as they experience them.

My hope is that as supplies start to flow through the system, the areas of obvious need will be addressed, and then it will be more of a problem with breaking shipments into smaller quantities.

I’m very proud of all the volunteers. We have contributed the thing that we can give, which is the ability to make a website, collect information, and make it useful. Our donors are contributing what they have, which is spare PPE. The greater community is glad to donate their supplies, but what I want people to take away from all of this is: coordinated grassroots donations will not be enough.

The question I really want to ask is: How many millions of PPE could be manufactured if the federal government ordered it right now, and fully enforced the Defense Production Act? How many could be purchased by even a few of America’s more than 600 billionaires?

Grassroots redistribution, even through coordinated technology, is not enough to solve this shortage.

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