Smart, energetic people can find creative solutions to the coronavirus mask shortage. Karen Jang interviews Christian Lewis, a co-founder of MasksOn.org, a nonprofit venture that manufactures and gives masks free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept brutally throughout the United States many frontline workers became infected and died because of the shortage of protective personal equipment (PPE). Within two innocent weeks of March, a distant epidemic had reached the U.S. and emerged as a full-blown pandemic around the globe. Schools closed, rent became overdue, and workers had to remain home. Death rates soared, wails of sirens filled the city, the news was morbid, and in the meantime, healthcare workers were called to serve at the front lines of hospitals and ambulances.
As healthcare systems became overwhelmed, medical professionals also became infected. A shortage of masks accelerated infections and deaths, and hundreds of healthcare workers fell ill to this invisible and unrelenting disease.
Two anesthesiologists, Dr. Jackie Boehme and Dr. Alex Stone, and Eugene Mann, a Google product manager, came up with the game-changing solution this spring. Propelled by the mask shortage crisis, they reached out to Sanjay Vakil and someone who would become a key collaborator and entrepreneur early on. Luckily, they were able to recruit an expert who had previously advised financial and corporate investors on political risk across the Southeast Asian region.
Meet Christian Lewis, a co-creator of MasksOn.org, a clinician-led collaboration working to equip 100,000 front-line healthcare workers with innovative reusable protective masks during the first weeks of the crisis.
As I sat down with him to talk about the drive and inspiration behind MasksOn.org venture I thought about the unstoppable power of entrepreneurship to create social change.
Christian is MBA candidate 2021 at the Yale School of Management where he is studying finance. Prior to MasksOn.org, he spent nine years focusing on the politics and economics of Southeast Asia, first at an international development organization where he worked on transitional governance and democratic reform in Myanmar, and later at Eurasia Group, where he led their Southeast Asia coverage.
MasksOn.org was started because “COVID-19 continues to overwhelm health systems across the world, creating a dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) that keeps frontline healthcare providers safe. Many doctors, nurses, and hospital staff were forced to rely on donations, crowdsourcing, and the ever-trending #GetMePPE to attain the basic equipment needed to help their patients.” Christian started recollecting the days when this organization came to life.
“It’s a daily privilege to work with such a talented group!”, he said fondly.
The leadership of this powerful venture, as Christian told me, was always in agreement that MasksOn.org is a step in the right direction to supply enough masks to get through the peak of the PPE shortage crisis until the supply chain has caught up. “Unfortunately, what we are seeing and hearing from the thousands of clinicians who have requested and received our reusable face shields across 48 states, there is no clear end to the crisis in sight. The need, in other words, is as great as ever—it’s just moving from the epicenter of the virus, New York City, to new locations,” he said.
Initially, to find volunteers, Christian and other co-founders reached out to friends and colleagues to recruit. After only a few days, volunteers started coming to them. “It’s been exciting to see such an extraordinary and diverse team form around one important idea: keeping front-line health care workers safe. In terms of milestones, we’ve delivered more than 16,000 Reusable Face Shield Kits into the hands of front-line clinicians in about two months,” Christian Lewis told me.
Christian said that looking ahead, one of the most important upcoming opportunities relates to obtaining regulatory approvals. The FDA's authorization of the snorkeling masks converted into protective gear, or the Reusable Face Shield Kit, would make the process easier for hospital administrators to accept donations of this newly manufactured product. When mask supplies are still low and Masks On can provide thousands of comfortable masks that would protect healthcare workers, FDA approval is a top priority for this nonprofit. Furthermore, FDA authorization would be an important indicator of product safety and quality standards for medical devices, such as their Reusable Face Shield Kit.
“We are getting pro bono support from a team of medical device experts who are engaged with the FDA to ensure we’re fully compliant with the highest standards,” said Christian, optimistically.
Back in February and March in the pandemic when there was an extreme shortage, hospitals had to ration N-95 respirators and surgical masks among healthcare workers. Many companies elevated the price of each mask too, essentially monopolizing masks of their brand at a time of life-and-death in order to gain more profit as demand increased. Furthermore, as China, the largest producer of masks in the world at the time, was hit incredibly hard and fast by the virus, the production of masks decreased. While many individuals created their own DIY masks, they were generally ineffective, allowing the microscopic air-borne SARS-CoV-2 viruses to enter.
At this time of mask shortage, when many people felt like the world would end, Masks On purchased effective snorkeling masks and combined them creatively with bacteria and virus filters to create an essential seal and barrier against the coronavirus.
“The clinicians on our team are an inspiration. Many of them would spend long shifts treating some of the sickest patients infected by COVID-19, only to come home, fire up their computers, and put in another couple hours working for MasksOn.org, designing early prototypes, evaluating new designs and testing the devices in clinical settings. They set a high bar for the rest of us,” Christian said.
“How do you think that creative business people can organize and mobilize in order to create solutions and change the world?” I asked him.
Christian replied with a positive message based on his experience. “I’ve seen some very talented people pull together to work on MasksOn.org in the past several months. There’s really no doubt in my mind whatsoever that smart, energetic people can find creative solutions to important social problems such as this one,” he said.
Although business is often thought of as dry, and profit-oriented, Christian’s venture shows that it can help people and the world. When I inquired whether this is a good moment to rethink the way business is understood and portrayed in politics and media, Christian gave credit to the people that are making this collaboration and non-profit possible.
Christian said, “individual donors, private foundations and private sector partners have been integral to our accomplishments every step of the way—from supplying materials and workspaces to giving us flexibility in our day jobs to invest our time into this project.”
Additionally, one of the most important early decisions the team had to make was about the allocation and distribution of face shields. It is not easy to gather a big panel of volunteers, organizers, and businessmen and start a philanthropic non-profit in a time of economic impoverishment. It is even more difficult to manufacture and distribute masks to thousands of healthcare professionals and individuals. Therefore, the team decided early to appoint a medical ethics panel to review their decisions about the allocation and distribution of their masks.
“Given all the market distortions affecting PPE distribution right now, I’m really proud of the team’s choice to deliver our MasksOn.org Reusable Face Shield Kits completely free of charge on a first-come-first-served basis. It ensures that the healthcare workers with the most need are always our absolute top priority,” Christian said.
At a respite when the U.S. is past the peak of the first wave, many healthcare professionals are extremely worried about the consequences of reopening too quickly. As smaller outbreaks continue to occur, especially in impoverished regions, Masks On continues to accept donations that will 100% go to purchasing snorkel masks and manufacturing custom-made adapters that attach the mask to a virus filter. So far, they have raised an impressive $191,381 out of their goal of $1,000,000 and delivered more than 11,253 masks to more than 1000 institutions in 47 states.
“I hope that, even after the pandemic subsides, society continues to benefit from private initiatives such as MasksOn.org. I’m optimistic that we will see many more new instances of ingenuity, volunteerism and cross-sector collaboration such as I have witnessed in the past two months at MasksOn.org,” concluded Christian.
If you need PPE, please place an order on their website, MasksOn.org! And, most importantly, donate at https://www.gofundme.com/f/maskson?utm_source=website so they can produce more Reusable Face Shield Kits for individuals and medical professionals.
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