In the bed of a black pickup truck sat stacks of boxes, each one with a drawing of a panda and an alligator in surgical masks. The drawing read, “United we stand” in English and “United to fight together” in Chinese.
The boxes contained N95 masks, surgical masks and other supplies that nurses and doctors treating COVID-19 are desperate for.
Standing six feet apart and wearing masks themselves, the donors — who were all members of Gainesville’s Chinese community — unloaded the boxes filled with personal protective equipment to donate to UF Health Shands Hospital.
Now, as the U.S. leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitals across the nation face a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, many locals have tried to solve the problem on their own.
Gainesville’s Chinese American community discussed ways they could help and decided they would use their connections in China to raise money and procure equipment to donate to Shands. As of Sunday evening, there were more than 120 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alachua County, and at least 30 reported cases of UF students and faculty. Currently, there are nine cases being treated at Shands. These numbers are likely to rise.
While there’s been a lot of community support, Abby Andring, an employee at UF Health’s supply chain services, said they currently have enough personal protective equipment to meet demands, but it’s a struggle to make predictions regarding how much they’ll need if the situation worsens.
“Our main goal of getting this community support is to make sure that we’re prepared in abundance,” Andring said.
The donation was a culmination of weeks of effort involving about 200 Chinese people living in Gainesville, and it all started with a group chat.
Created by Gainesville realtor Hongtao Liu a few years ago in the messaging app WeChat, the group is made up of about 500 Chinese people living in Gainesville. Months ago, many of them sent surgical masks and other personal protective equipment to their friends and family in China to help them protect themselves from the COVID-19 outbreak before it reached the United States.
A separate group chat in the messaging app was created by Liu, titled in Chinese, “The Gainesville Facemask Donation.”
Members of the group chat got the word out to their friends, family and community members and raised more than $30,000 in three days through direct donations using services like PayPal, Zelle and wire transfers. The school board of the Huagen Chinese School in Gainesville set up an account to handle the money and purchasing, said Amy Pan, a UF business professor who was involved with the donations.
The money was used to purchase personal protective equipment from China based on a wishlist of supplies they asked UF Health Shands Hospital to give them. There were challenges early-on in finding a workaround of China’s restrictions on the export of medical supplies, but eventually the supplies were shipped out of the country in small packages to avoid complications with U.S. customs, where it could be forfeited to cities that were more in need of PPE, Pan said.
On Thursday morning, the members of the group dropped off thousands of masks they collected and other equipment, which were received by Dr. Marvin Dewar, the senior associate dean of the UF College of Medicine and CEO of UF Health Physicians.
For Chinese Americans, there’s a saying: you have to fight the whole battle, Pan said.
“We were helping the Chinese people,” Pan said. “Now, we are helping American hospitals.”
Jingkai Wu, an exchange student and second-year mechanical engineering master’s student at UF, got involved in the donation effort because he said he thinks every individual can make a difference in fighting this global issue. He said Chinese students have more information and experience in the matter because their families have been going through it since the beginning of the year. He personally donated 10 medical overalls and 25 pairs of shoe covers.
“Helping local hospitals is helping ourselves,” Wu said. “The more resources and supports they get, the safer our community would be.”
Dr. Xiuli Liu, a pathologist at Shands, said part of why she helped the group with the effort was to show her kids the importance of community and how to help when there’s a crisis.
Both Pan and Liu hope that other organizations in need will reach out to them if they are in need.
People who are interested in further contributing to the fundraising efforts can do so through a Google Form at ifla.news/donations. The form indicates that the group is looking to make donations to other local hospitals, public service employees and law enforcement officers.
Meanwhile, UF professor Jian Ge was organizing his own donation effort.
The astronomy professor, who has been in the news before for his role in finding the planet Vulcan, organized more than 300 donors to purchase personal protective equipment for medical staff in China a few months ago. As cases rose in the U.S., those he helped then contacted him to find out how they could help Americans now.
Ge said close to 200 people from all over China, some of whom he has never met, contacted him so they could donate personal protective equipment, which he collected and donated to Shands as well as the UF departments of ophthalmology, which studies and treats eye disorders, and otolaryngology, which deals with the surgical and medical treatment of conditions of the ear, nose and throat.
He said he knows of a second grader in China named Michael who donated the money he received from his relatives during the Chinese Spring Festival to buy masks to donate to the U.S.
Through these donations, he has received about 2,000 N95 masks, 4,000 surgical masks and 2,000 medical masks. He said he hopes other hospitals in need reach out to him so he can organize more donations.
“Nobody can survive without the global help for each other,” Ge said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the donations involved Chinese people living in Gainesville and that the supplies were shipped in small packages to avoid complications with U.S. customs.
Contact Kaelyn Cassidy at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.
Changweng Deng, one of the donation organizers, unloads boxes of PPE from the back of a pickup truck on Thursday to donate to UF Health Shands Hospital. Everyone present at the donation observed social distancing guidelines by standing six feet apart and wearing facemasks to protect themselves from COVID-19, they told The Alligator.