During COVID-19, Chicago Med Students Are A Lifeline For Health Care Workers Seeking PPE

PPE and medical supplies
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as masks and gloves, has been hard to come by during the pandemic. One group of Chicago medical students organized to get much-needed PPE to frontline workers during the pandemic. David J. Phillip / Associated Press
PPE and medical supplies
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as masks and gloves, has been hard to come by during the pandemic. One group of Chicago medical students organized to get much-needed PPE to frontline workers during the pandemic. David J. Phillip / Associated Press

During COVID-19, Chicago Med Students Are A Lifeline For Health Care Workers Seeking PPE

An advocacy group that several Chicago-area medical students started during the pandemic so far has given away more than half a million pieces of protective equipment to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The organization, called GetMePPE Chicago, has distributed the personal protective equipment – or PPE – to hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters and other places in need. Since the start of the pandemic, those supplies have been hard to come by.

The distribution list from GetMePPE Chicago goes on and on: more than 300,000 face shields, over 200,000 gloves, and more than 65,000 N95 masks that protect against getting and spreading the novel coronavirus.

“They were like our secret Santa,” said Briana Brown, activity director at Symphony of Bronzeville, a nursing facility on the Near South Side with around 250 residents and about 300 employees. “This is just random donations.”

GetMePPE has dropped off at least 2,000 masks and more than 500 face shields at Symphony. There have been at least 64 cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths at the facility, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The novel coronavirus has torn through nursing homes throughout the state.

The hustle to get out desperately-needed supplies

GetMePPE began in March when COVID-19 took off in Illinois. Several medical students at local universities who were gathering PPE banded together to create one large organization. Tricia Pendergrast was in her first year of medical school at Northwestern University at the time and is one of the co-founders of GetMePPE.

Pendergrast said she was inspired by her friend who was training to become a surgeon in another state and was potentially being exposed to the virus as she treated patients without enough PPE.

“She was about to turn 30,” Pendergrast recalled. “It was her birthday week, and she was working on a living will because she and the rest of her co-residents didn’t have N95s at the hospital that they were working in and they didn’t have face shields. She was scared that she was going to get sick and not have that in order.”

When GetMePPE first launched, the group rounded up PPE from around the Chicago area. A home renovation project, for example, could yield a box of a dozen or more unused N95 masks.

“You do that five or 10 times, and you have enough of a donation to set up the 20-person ICU team for a safe couple of days,” Pendergrast said, referring to intensive care units in hospitals where doctors, nurses and others treat the sickest patients.

Hundreds of volunteers would call around to businesses in industries that used PPE, pick up the supplies, then drop them off where they were needed the most.

“Sometimes this was at 3 in the morning when someone was like, ‘Hey, we have no N95s. Can you bring some to this emergency department and we will meet you outside,’” Pendergrast said.

During a virtual interview with WBEZ, cardboard boxes of face shields and surgical masks towered behind her.

Realizing the PPE issue wasn’t going away and community donations would likely dry up, GetMePPE started fundraising, writing grants and partnering with organizations that could help the organization find more protective equipment.

The group worked to build relationships with medical facilities and other organizations, prioritizing those in low-income communities, to let them know they had supplies. They created a spreadsheet to stay organized.

So far, GetMePPE has donated to more than 50 hospitals, more than 100 nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as to anti-violence groups, homeless and domestic violence shelters.

Pendergrast said her grades have taken a bit of a hit since helping launch the group. But she said the massive effort behind GetMePPE is worth it. She said it’s taught her valuable lessons about partnering with others. And it’s given her a front-row seat to the disparities in health care as she prepares to decide the type of physician she wants to be.

In Chicago, Black and Latino residents have been hit hardest by COVID-19.

“It was really hard as a medical student having to sneak in personal protective equipment to health care professionals because the powers that be would not admit that there were PPE shortages,” Pendergrast said.

As for her friend working in a hospital out of state, Pendergrast said someone snuck in PPE for her, too.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.