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PPE donations underline longstanding international connections

Photo by Anthony DeCarlo
Substantial early and mid-April deliveries of personal protective equipment or PPE like this one on April 17th, totaling 130,000 face masks and 5,000 face shields, have been welcomed at Yale School of Medicine during the COVID-19 pandemic. A huge network of alumni, staff, and well-wishers cooperated to make this possible.

Toward the end of January, face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) donated by people at Yale started leaving for Hunan, China. In the midst of its coronavirus outbreak, the country was in need. Factories had closed for the lunar new year and supplies were running low.

“We were scrambling and seeing if we could buy things to send in that direction,” said David Youtz, president of the Yale-China Association. “Within about a two-week period a large volume of materials went to China, which had an urgent short-term need.”

By early February, however, a federal edict stopped that flow to China—PPE would be needed in the United States. “That was the moment when it occurred to me that this isn’t just an issue in China,” Youtz said. “It’s something bigger and this could be an American issue.”

Then the emails started coming from China.

“Many of our friends in China wrote and expressed concern,” Youtz said. “They would say, ‘We heard that New York is getting hit hard and we are concerned about you.’”

So began shipments to Yale of PPE that continue unabated. As of mid-April, one shipment of 30,000 surgical masks and 3,000 N95 rated masks, and another of 130,000 masks and 5,000 face shields on 15 pallets arrived at Yale’s West Campus. The first shipment came from the COVID-19 Life Preservation Initiative, a consortium of four American and three Chinese NGOs that gives 10% of its PPE donations to Yale-China. The second was organized by a group of Yale alumni and associates led by Frank Yi (YC ’09) Mavila Marina Miller, (YC ’16) Ken Lin of Yale New Haven Hospital, and Tanya Yajnik, a student at Yale School of Public Health. They were not the only groups with a connection to Yale to help source vital equipment. Other organizations and individual alumni have been active as well, such as alumni of the School of Management based in Hong Kong and on mainland China, led by Julie Zhao, who earned her MBA at Yale School of Management in 2014. Zhao’s initiative helped source and vet shipments to ensure their quality.

“We’re getting a lot of gestures like that, people sending us a box or a couple of boxes. We have seven health professionals who studied at Yale and they have banded together and sent medical grade PPE that are coming in the next week or so,” Youtz said. “There are these very different streams. They are all eager to help Yale New Haven Hospital and the physicians here.”

The donations are the fruit of deep and longstanding relations between Yale and China that began in 1834 when Peter Parker, a Yale graduate, physician, and minister, traveled to Canton to open an eye hospital. Canton was then the only Chinese city open to foreigners. In 1901, when Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, opened to foreigners, Yale graduates traveled there to open Yali High School as well as a hospital, a medical school, and a nursing school. Their mission in founding what would become the Yale-China Association, was originally to bring Western medicine and educational models to China. Relationships among those institutions have lasted to this day. Students come from China to study at Yale. Yale medical students travel to China for clinical rotations. Yale sends recent graduates to teach at Yali High School and brings health professionals here to study.

“We think of ourselves as a bridge between Yale and institutions in China,” Youtz said. “These are the oldest university ties anywhere in China.”

“The Yale-China Association has been working on both sides to bring people together and promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding” said Gary Zhou, MD, HS ’99, assistant professor of anesthesiology, and a board member of the association.

He graduated from the Xiangya Medical School in Changsha, which was founded by Yale graduates in 1906, and came to Yale for his residency.

“Yale-China has a tradition of connecting people in both countries, promoting bilateral exchange and mutual support,” Zhou said. “The PPE donations facilitated by Yale-China really reflects humanity, compassion, and a unity in fighting this pandemic, and it comes from the bottom of everyone’s heart.”

Zhou, an anesthesiologist at Yale New Haven Hospital, helped organize PPE donations to China in January. When the tide turned and it was clear that the virus would reach the United States, Zhou looked at China’s experience for lessons.

“We thought that by the time the virus spreads to the United States, we should be well prepared. That was not the case,” he said. “In the beginning, we were given only one N95 mask to use for up to a whole week. Everyone realized this is crazy, and that is why I’m involved with organizing PPE donations to New Haven for my colleagues and our community.”

According to Youtz, doctors, nurses, and staff at Yale New Haven Hospital are already using the PPE shipped from China. And more is on the way, including more PPE from the NGOs, a large shipment from Xiangya Hospital and another from Changsha, which is a sister city to New Haven.

“Sometimes I feel I wish I could do more,” Zhou said. “This is really about other people, so many people putting a lot of effort into it, and I’m only one of those people.”