Dr. Ali Raja is Executive Vice-Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and a Professor at Harvard Medical School. He is a co-founder of Get Us PPE, a nonprofit that gets personal protective equipment (PPE) to those who need it most.
Founded in March 2020, Get Us PPE was formed in response to the emerging PPE shortage that swept through emergency rooms across the nation. Since its inception, Get Us PPE has donated nearly 7 million PPE units and built the largest non-governmental database of PPE shortages in the country. Employing a data-driven approach that emphasizes efficiency and equity, Get US PPE is able to reach underserved and vulnerable communities from coast to coast.
Recognizing the Extent of the PPE Shortage
The early spring 2020 surge in COVID-19 cases experienced at MGH, one the of largest Emergency Departments on the east coast, made it clear that PPE would be a critical need for front-line medical personnel. Fortunately, Dr. Raja’s own institution has a robust supply chain and the staffing expertise to manage it effectively.
I have friends who are emergency physicians across the country. As soon as the [COVID-19] surge began I began receiving texts and calls about how they were running out of PPE.
Colleagues in emergency departments across the country were not so fortunate, and Dr. Raja found himself receiving an increasing number of emails and texts about this issue from emergency physicians and some hospital leaders across the country. Overall, it appeared that emergency physicians in smaller institutions and those employed as contractors were facing the greatest needs. Conversations with Dr. Shuhan He, a colleague at MGH led to the idea of matching donated PPE supplies with healthcare workers in need. However, donations needed to be identified, a distribution system organized, and public health experts needed to be engaged. Drs. Megan Ranney and Esther Choo, also of MGH, had already begun an effort called GetMePPE.org. Drs. Raja and He decided to combine their efforts with those of Drs. Ranney and Choo, leading to the birth of GetUsPPE.org.
Greatest Unrecognized Risks of the COVID-19 Pandemic
When Dr. Ali Raja is asked about the greatest unrecognized risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, he points out that the US is not in this pandemic alone and that failing to learn from countries who have dealt with it more effectively could lead to continuing poor outcomes for the US.
It’s easy for us in the US to focus on the issues with PPE and the vaccination rollout within our hospitals or health systems, our states, our regions, or even our country and forget that this pandemic is truly global – that we have so much we can learn from other countries.
Dr. Raja, a native of Pakistan, left that country at the age of four but maintains a keen awareness of global issues. Due to the world-wide nature of the pandemic, the US is able (if it chooses) to recognize both our national strengths and weaknesses in dealing with this crisis. As the US contends with more cases than any other nation in the world, the pandemic has exposed holes and inequities in our healthcare infrastructure. Failing to learn from other countries who have handled the pandemic better puts us at risk for continuing on this painful path.
Most Crucial Intervention for Stopping the Spread of COVID-19
Rebuilding trust within our country, especially between communities of color and our healthcare system is critical for stopping the spread of COVID-19.
We need to rebuild trust at all levels
Dr. Ali Raja observes that the pervasive divisions and disagreements in our country sometimes result in ideas being judged on the basis of people’s beliefs about their sources – rather than on their merits. This can lead to potentially disregarding good options for bringing the pandemic under control faster. In addition, Dr. Raja believes that the general distrust of the healthcare system by communities of color is likely to slow down the uptake of vaccines (even after the distribution is figured out). As a result, it will take longer to bring the pandemic under control, and negatively impact individuals in communities that are already disproportionately affected by it.
To mitigate this situation, we need to do more than setting up mass vaccination sites. We need to make vaccines available through the primary care clinicians and pharmacists that communities of color already have relationships with and are more likely to trust. It is important to build on any base of trust that already exists.
Assuring Adequate PPE Supplies Going Forward
When asked how to assure adequate PPE supplies going forward, Dr. Ali Raja believes we need to know where the needs are, then allocate supplies fairly. PPE needs are a constantly changing landscape, so current information is critical to making sure the needs can be addressed.
We need a robust – and constantly updated – understanding of the PPE needs across the country. We then need to allocate the PPE supply fairly, which is why Get Us PPE FDA is so amazing. Both steps are equally important.
Increasing available supplies of PPE is important (and production is likely to keep increasing), but it will still be necessary to make sure the neediest organizations, who can’t advocate for themselves, receive what they need.
Failing that, we risk leaving significant portions of the population unprotected.