While nations around the world jostled to obtain much-needed personal protective equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, a small band of Yale community volunteers and alumni, worked independently behind the scenes to bring the critical supplies to New Haven.
One of those volunteers was recent Yale School of Public Health graduate Tanya Yajnik, SBS ’20, who, along with Mavila Marina Miller, Yale College ’16, and Ken Lin, an oncology pharmacist at Yale’s Smilow Hospital, arranged delivery of 99,600 face masks and 96,000 face shields to Yale New Haven Hospital and the Yale New Haven Health System in April.
The protective equipment was donated by Yale alum Frank Ji, Yale College ’09, who purchased thousands of pieces of certified PPE in Shanghai with the intention of donating it to the Yale New Haven Health system. It was a tremendously generous gesture by Ji, but he needed help getting the supplies to New Haven.
The process wasn’t easy. The Yale volunteers had to navigate numerous international shipping regulations, trade restrictions and other legal requirements. Complicating matters further – Lin was sidelined temporarily when he contracted COVID-19 during the middle of the project.
“On the public health side, it really reinforces the idea that everything is connected to everything,” Yajnik said of the experience. “When you’re thinking about public health challenges and getting shipments to people in need, you have to think about the policy side and the regulatory side, and you have to communicate with a lot of different people really effectively.”
The littlest details became big problems.
“We would vet a certain type of mask, procure the lot, and have them shipped to port, just to be told that the masks could not be exported any more for something as simple as the placement of the certificate of inspection on the boxes,” Miller said. “Changes in regulations resulted in long nights. We had to manually move certificates of inspection from the boxes into plastic bags for thousands of masks.”
Now that they know the ins and outs of the international shipping process, the volunteers have started a GoFundMe page to solicit more donations for PPE. New donations will be used to acquire PPE for other hospitals in the region as well as nursing homes and similar facilities caring for vulnerable populations, the team said.
For now, while they wait for new contributions (the GoFundMe page just went live), the trio has a great story to tell and, like so many other stories these days, theirs starts on social media.
In early spring, Frank Ji, an active member of the Yale undergrad alumni community, reached out to Miller on the popular Chinese social messaging app WeChat. Ji expressed his interest in donating PPE to Yale New Haven Hospital but he wasn’t sure what supplies were needed most. Miller, also an active member of Yale undergrad alumni community, works in Shanghai and has a background in international trade and logistics.
About the same time, Yajnik and other members of the Yale Coalition for Health Innovation in Medical Emergencies or CHIME were engaging in various projects to help frontline workers in New Haven during the COVID crisis. Miller is a former student of CHIME leader Joseph Zinter, assistant director of the Yale Center of Engineering Innovation and Design or CEID. She contacted him about Ji’s donation.
Zinter shared the news with Yajnik, who contacted Miller on WeChat and together the pair started putting things into action. Soon after, Lin, who had been working on his own to arrange PPE donations through New Haven’s Asian American and Yale communities, learned of the pending donation through WeChat and offered to help.
With Miller and Ji in Shanghai and Yajnik in her hometown of Dallas due to COVID restrictions at Yale, Lin became a critical connection for coordinating the actual delivery and receiving of the PPE at Yale New Haven Hospital.
“This is really a team effort by people from across the globe,” said Lin. “It’s truly amazing how we pulled this off. A lot of that has to do with the willingness of people who wanted to do it from the bottom of their hearts and were absolutely committed to helping others through this crisis.”
Yajnik, Miller, and Lin called in all of their Yale connections to work through the process. Stymied by complex international shipping rules, Yajnik reached out to people she knew at the Yale Law School.
“Yale Law School was incredible,” Yajnik said. “I sent out a couple of messages and I got responses from students, parents of students. Everyone was eager to help.”
The team was also grateful for the assistance and support of Yale China, the Chinese members of the Yale community, and the Asian American community.
“Really, this project couldn’t have happened without Yale China, they were a primary piece of this all the way through,” Yajnik said.
Everyone involved in the process was aware of the pressure to finalize the deal. If the Yale team couldn’t secure delivery, there were plenty of other interested parties just waiting for a chance to take the equipment for themselves, Lin said.
To round out the donation to approximately 200,000 pieces of PPE, the team also facilitated delivery of an additional 820 “3M” masks and 10,000 surgical masks that were donated by Zinter. Those supplies currently sit in Ken Lin’s parents’ house and with Lin’s brother, Austin, waiting delivery to facilities in Connecticut and New York City.
Wherever it needs to go, rest assured, Yajnik, Miller, and Lin will get it there.
The need for PPE for frontline health care workers in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities remains high. Anyone interested in donating in support of the Yale team’s efforts can do so by visiting the team’s GoFundMe page here.