Kent State students donate medical masks to local hospitals, connect with international suppliers

Masks for Hope delivers medical supplies to local hospitals during the first drop-off on April 1. 

“The way I see it is that some of these masks could save lives,” said Irvin Cardenas, a robotics researcher and computer science Ph.D. student at Kent State University. 

As the number of coronavirus cases grows in Ohio, some Kent State University students decided to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers by founding Masks for Hope.

Led by Cardenas, the group started a GoFundMe page on March 25. They are using the donated money to purchase N95 masks, face shields and other supplies for local hospitals. Other organizers of the campaign include Tina Xu, a data scientist and graduate of Kent State, and Siera Terry, an entrepreneur and graduate student who helps with social media.  

“We just wanted to start to help out because countries like Italy and China, and other countries like Iran were already feeling the high impacts in terms of the shortages,” Cardenas said. 

Medical masks, such as the N95 mask, help keep health care professionals from being exposed to the coronavirus. The N95 mask prevents the wearer from airborne particles and liquid unlike cloth and knit masks, which may be used for additional protection.  

“People get confused. They think that health care workers wear the cloth masks, that it is OK for them. But actually it is not. So they still need the medical masks,” Xu said.

Cardenas and Xu visited testing facilities and gathered field notes in order to better understand the coronavirus testing process. They first visited Cleveland Clinic and then University Hospitals.

During their visit on March 20, there was a storm that caused about 200 people to leave University Hospitals without being tested. 

“When the storm was gone, they were the ones that actually stayed there putting up the tents, putting everything back together,” Cardenas said. “These health care professionals, they are people just like us. They have families, friends, loved ones that are waiting for them, but they are sort of risking their lives to help our community through this crisis.” 

Feeling motivated to help health care professionals, Cardenas started reaching out to friends and colleagues in his network, whether it was for donations or medical supplies. 

Through the contributions of people in the community and international manufacturing connections, Masks for Hope raised $4,565 of its $100,000 goal and donated about 4,000 medical masks and 140 face shields to the Cleveland Clinic and Summa Health. The group received its first order of supplies March 31 and delivered them April 1. 

Masks for Hope recently ordered another 535 medical masks and should receive them this week. 

To accomplish that, the team looked into the logistics and supply chain of securing PPE. For many hospitals and medical facilities, it is a long process that winds through financial offices, procurement offices and vendors in order to purchase supplies. 

“Any corporation you may think of — the bigger they are, the more complex it gets in terms of bureaucracy, interactions and policies. In the medical side, the same thing happens,” Cardenas said.  

If the company is a federally-based facility or private institution like a hospital, it is not necessary to pay for a product right away. Companies may discuss their payment terms on an invoice using “net 30,” a trade credit that specifies the total amount of money that must be paid by the buyer in 30 days. 

Due to the low supply and high demand for medical masks, many companies are now asking, “What are your payment terms?” Cardenas said. Some hospitals are getting quoted anywhere between $3 to $9 for N95 masks. Before the pandemic, N95 masks would cost large corporations $1 or less. 

“They [suppliers] are not going to wait for this net 30 days to get paid if other countries, other cities, other individuals are paying up front,” Cardenas said. 

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. imported 38.6 percent of its PPE and medical devices from China in 2019. Different suppliers and agencies have a specific cap on the number of health care items they can produce and export, especially now. 

“Countries like China and other European countries are kind of also monitoring in case COVID-19 cases spike up again. So, they’re trying to be cautious,” Cardenas said. 

Xu helps translate between Masks for Hope and international suppliers. She also translates documentation, which can include shipping details, customs and politics from the Chinese government. 

“I am originally from China, so my language barrier would be an advantage in this organization,” she said. 

Masks for Hope has one volunteer in Shanghai, China, who goes to factories himself and examines reports and prices of medical equipment. The group shares this information with other organizations and people looking to procure supplies for hospitals.

“As you can imagine, it’s complex to get the interaction across different regions and language barriers,” Cardenas said. 

Cardenas said it is important to build a trust network of manufacturers, suppliers, brokers or consultants to foster direct connections between hospitals. 

“Things have really degraded overall. And a lot of things have also disrupted this sort of logistics of the supply chain where you see people are trying to take the opportunity to make money off of this,” he said.   

As the concern for quality masks rises along with the demand, Cardenas ensures the supplies Masks for Hope acquired are Food and Drug Administration approved. The suppliers they work with provide the adequate certification, licenses and a virtual tour of their factories. 

“We procure a lot of the stuff from our friends,” he said. “When we started looking into this, really it was about getting supplies to folks as soon as possible. … We’re trying to help them get the best prices with the safest guarantees.”

While Masks for Hope’s main goal is immediacy, Cardenas does not want to be an intermediary in this process. Instead, he hopes the group can facilitate the direct connection between suppliers and hospitals. 

Cardenas and members of Kent State’s Advanced Telerobotics Research Laboratory are still examining ways to optimize the coronavirus drive-thru testing process. 

“We’re still working on the type of robotic kiosk that could facilitate the testing for coronavirus,” Cardenas said. The group submitted a research proposal to the National Science Foundation.

Masks for Hope is updating its website to share the information and data the group collects. 

“We personally feel that education is the key part so people understand what’s happening, not just around coronavirus and COVID-19 and how it’s spreading, but other things of what’s happening, like the supply chain and logistics, how the industry has been disrupted,” Cardenas said. 

Masks for Hope is partnering with local businesses such as HA!TEA in Kent and Slyman’s Tavern and Cocky’s Bagels in Cleveland. They will donate a portion of their sales to Masks for Hope’s campaign. 

Cardenas noted the importance of staying home during this time and encourages people to be considerate of how the coronavirus is affecting people and businesses in our community.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is really also share a positive message of standing together,” he said. “I think it’s good to come together as a community and stand strong.” 

Jenna Borthwick is the news director for TV2. Contact her at [email protected].