A tragedy close to home pushed Anne Miller into action during the pandemic’s early months, but what she did next has had an impact around the country.
Miller, who lives in Essex, is executive director of Project N95, a “PPE clearinghouse” that connects people who need personal protective equipment to companies that make it.
To date, the effort has delivered over 3 million N95 masks, pairs of gloves, shoe covers and other protective gear to health care workers and citizens across the country.
Miller, who has a background in health care consulting, said she started volunteering part-time for Project N95’s PPE sourcing team in March after finding the initiative on Twitter. After losing her mother-in-law to Covid-19 a month later, and catching the virus herself, she threw herself into the work at a nearly full-time clip.
Now, she directs the initiative on a daily basis from her basement.
“I’m glad that I’m alive and I don’t have any lingering symptoms,” Miller said of her bout with the virus. “But I had to say goodbye to my mother-in-law via FaceTime at UVM Medical Center. I don’t wish that on other people. If getting through this pandemic is a matter of having PPE to keep you safe, that’s a problem worth being solved.”
Getting PPE to health care workers has been a huge challenge during the pandemic, as anxiety over the virus continues to push people to stock up on masks and other gear.
Small health providers in the U.S. have struggled to obtain equipment, as have providers and individuals in remote and poor areas. Compounding matters in the pandemic’s early days was a flood of unvetted equipment from new producers looking to capitalize on the crisis.
“There were all these new actors in the marketplace,” Miller said. “And new products that were not familiar products in the U.S. It was like, how do you know who’s a supplier who’s really going to be here for the long haul, and who’s an investor who’s just speculating and trying to make that markup?”
Creating “order out of the chaos” has become Project N95’s mission, Miller said. The nonprofit’s 17-volunteer vetting team follows a careful set of steps to vet PPE. When a supplier submits a product through Project N95’s website, the organization’s sourcing team first checks that a supplier’s products are legitimate and fall under regulatory guidelines, and then performs a background check on the supplier.
The biggest supplier drop-off comes when the sourcing team runs a reference check to make sure suppliers have actually delivered products to health care facilities in the past, according to Greg Sigelbaum, the sourcing team lead and a 2017 Middlebury College graduate.
“We look to see that suppliers have delivered products before to medical providers,” Sigelbaum said. “We need them to be able to navigate the supply chain, because it’s been so disrupted.”
Tied to vetting responsibilities is the need to educate buyers about what level of protection people should seek when buying PPE, depending on their circumstances, Miller said. Often, people have tried to buy PPE that’s more protective, and more expensive, than they really need.
“When we first started talking to people, they’d be like, ‘I need a level-4 isolation gown,’” Miller said. “Which is a pretty substantial gown. If you’re in pediatrics practice, for example, you probably don’t need a level-4 gown; you’d use that in surgery, or something like that. There’s been a lot of educating buyers about understanding that.”
Buyers — health care providers, nursing homes, other private organizations and individuals — contact Project N95 through its website, and the organization’s sourcing team gets to work connecting them to a producer.
Aggregating small buyers
Because PPE suppliers often require large minimum orders that exceed the quantity smaller buyers want, Siegelbaum said, placing “aggregate” orders for multiple buyers at once, particularly in low-access areas, “allows Project N95 to reach more vulnerable communities.”
A Native American reservation in South Dakota that received 100,000 masks, a free clinic in Harlem, and health care providers in Puerto Rico and Alaska are among those who have received PPE through Project N95. The organization has also worked with Angel Flight East and Angel Flight West, two “charitable aviation organizations,” to cut shipping costs for disadvantaged buyers, Miller said.
Miller, who moved to Vermont four years ago from Florida, is not the only Project N95 volunteer with ties to the Green Mountain State. Some working out of Lincoln, Waitsfield and Middlebury have at turns pitched in with the initiative. Other workers are based in locales as far-flung as the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago and Minnesota.
Miller “puts faith in us and lets us own what we’re doing, and is one of the most responsive people I’ve worked with,” Sigelbaum said.
Motivating her through the work are memories of her mother-in-law, Rama Rawal, who died of the virus on April 1. Family members remembered Rawal in a VTDigger obituary as a “fighter for other people” who worked adamantly to maintain her culture and identity after immigrating to the U.S. from India. She was one of the first Vermonters to die of Covid-19.
Diving into Project N95 since then has been a way to honor her memory, Miller said.
“It’s hard to lose someone you love to Covid,” she said. “If I can do anything to help other people not be in that place, that’s what I’m here for.”
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