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Confessions of a PPE Smuggler

A journey into the desperate world of ordinary citizens trying to get personal protective equipment to health care workers—against hospitals’ wishes

Misha Friedman/Getty Images

“I’m worried I’m exposing myself to more of this crap,” my friend Irfan texted me from his shift in the intensive care unit at a hospital in New York. A month since the first confirmed case in the state, Irfan, a critical care physician, had already gotten Covid-19 and was back at work after a weeklong isolation. (“Irfan” is not using his real name out of fear of reprisals.) Now I had a new reason to worry about him and his colleagues: Articles about frontline health care workers forced to treat coronavirus patients without proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, had begun surfacing online.

“Are you properly protected? Or is there a shortage?” I asked.

He texted back: “I’m using the same N95 for the whole fucking day and it’s all distorted. And I’m refusing my eye shield. Which we wipe down but there’s def covid on there.”

I read his message a few times, not really understanding what he meant, before responding: “Why refusing eye shield???”

“They don’t have enough,” came the reply.

Irfan had been sending me live updates on the worsening situation in both of the intensive care units where he works: at a city hospital in Queens and a private hospital in Manhattan. Patient capacity was over 200 percent in Queens. During one shift, 15 Covid patients were admitted into his unit from the emergency room. Three died before the night was over. On another night, eight patients died. Some suffered multiple organ failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome, others died before Irfan could treat them.

An X-ray he texted me of a patient’s lungs was brilliantly white, like the city during a blizzard with no visibility. “I just intubated my dad’s friend,” he texted. “He’s on full vent support and his oxygen is still dropping. I thought he was going to code on me.”

The day after Irfan said he was forgoing wearing protective face shields in order to give them to his colleagues to use, I sent out a call for help to friends in an email: “The trauma of treating pandemic patients who are dying in droves is in itself terrifying; having to work without proper protection is unconscionable.”

I had found a few DIY designs for making face shields using only a few materials: elastic, clear plastic, and foam. With little to do in the past month but bake cakes and eat them by myself, I was equally eager for purpose and the chance to escape my apartment. I was willing to drive anywhere to pick up materials from anyone who might have them. Friends with art and fabrication studios topped my list of possible sources. I also put out a call for volunteers who could help make the shields once materials were secured.

My friend Shabd Simon-Alexander, a community organizer and artist, had begun the painstaking work of connecting PPE donors directly to the frontline health care workers who were desperate for supplies. Her efforts were a way of circumventing the broken government and health care systems that left essential hospital workers bereft of the tools they needed to do their jobs safely. By early April, an emergency room physician had been fired for speaking out about the medical supplies and protective measures his hospital was providing—or rather, not providing. A nurse had been suspended for crowdsourcing to buy PPE.

A photo of three nurses wrapped in black garbage bags in lieu of protective gowns—one of whom modishly cinched hers at the waist, while another held up the box of Hefty Strong Value 33-gallon drawstring bags in mock pageantry—doubled as an omen of body bags and product placement for these pandemic times. “Multipurpose,” the brightly colored packaging boasted. Surely the viral photo was a boon for Hefty, like skyrocketing gun sales in the wake of mass shootings. In addition to hoarding toilet paper and canned food, Americans prepared for civil unrest by purchasing more guns, sales doubling and tripling as the virus arrived stateside.

“We can’t mutual-aid our way out of systemic failure,” Simon-Alexander said in an NPR piece on the U.S. crowdsourcing of PPE. Responding to this immediate need, she co-founded Mask Crusaders, a platform for essential workers to find PPE listed by donors. She amplified my call for materials and volunteers. Soon, more than 40 people had signed up to make face shields. They had to wait: No one had materials. Plastic was scarce, and shipments from manufacturers in China were delayed, if not canceled altogether.

In my call for help, I had also given friends the option to donate money for purchasing ready-made face shields. The effort quickly yielded results. A designer, Mary Ping, and artist, Oren Pinhassi, each ordered large quantities of shields to be delivered directly to Irfan’s apartment from a warehouse in New York. My phone kept chirping—You’ve got money—as people sent cash donations to my various accounts. My friends James Yeh and Adam Kleinman, both writers, forwarded my call to their contacts. Anne Wyman, a friend of Yeh’s, stepped up to order a large shipment of shields directly from a manufacturer in California. Professor Alexander Nagel solicited donations from his friends. In five days, we raised nearly $6,500, all without a social media or crowdfunding platform, and purchased over 1,000 face shields.

When the shields I ordered arrived, there was only one small box, busted at the seams. I tore it open and texted Simon-Alexander: “Got the first shipment of shields. They’re not assembled. FML.” She quickly reminded me that over 40 volunteers had signed up to make shields through Mask Crusaders. Two volunteers in Brooklyn, Justin Hinh and Corinne Blalock, split the shield assembly and rushed to finish the task that weekend. I was contacted by two other shieldmakers who had materials on hand. Suetwan Chan produced 60 and mailed them to me from Utah, where she lives. Seldon Yuan made 50 using clear plastic from a disused artwork, with elastic that I bought from a fabric store in Midtown that was open for curbside pickup, which I delivered to his studio in Bushwick.

The same weekend I put out the call for help, I drove from the Upper West Side to Bushwick, Greenpoint, Prospect Park, Park Slope, and the East Village to pick up N95 masks that donors had listed on Mask Crusaders. Two days of scurrying from neighborhood to neighborhood netted a haul of 52 masks. This small stockpile was precious cargo to the workers who needed them. Irfan, like many physicians, was rationed one mask per shift, which could last anywhere between 12 and 24 hours. Others fared worse: Some hospitals demanded that physicians reuse the same mask for a week. Normally, these masks are meant to be single-use, disposed of immediately after treating a patient.

When I first moved to New York five and a half years ago, people often made fun of me for having a car—for being “too L.A.”—with a haughtiness that relegated cars to the abject; the subway, of course, being the only mode of acceptable transportation in the city. No one laughs at me for having a car now.

Behind the wheel of my duct-taped generation-two Prius, navigating the apocalyptic streets spangled with the bouncing white dots of the occasional jogger’s or delivery worker’s masks, I got on the highway and sped to Queens and Manhattan through the night. It seemed darker than normal, somehow, because of all the missing signs of life—traffic, pedestrians, and bicyclists—that usually filled the frame of my windshield. I stopped outside the hospital where Irfan worked the night shifts. In my rearview mirror, I saw the rotating glass doors of the hospital spit him out onto the sidewalk where I idled at the curb.

We greeted one another through an open window, our faces obscured by clammy masks, as I popped the trunk where his stash was waiting. In addition to the shields I had ordered, donors threw in goggles, gloves, gowns, masks, and disinfectant wipes. They sat in bags, waiting for Irfan to smuggle them into his unit for distribution to his critical care staff. I made him promise that he would actually wear the face shields we had gotten him instead of giving them all away to the other nurses and physicians in the ICU.

As I drove all over the city, making these pickups and drop-offs, it started to feel like I was engaged in illicit activity, like I was a Triad courier moving contraband. Dropping the masks off directly to Irfan at his hospitals made him complicit in this collective unreality. The truth was far bleaker: I was foraging piecemeal supplies from individuals who risked contagion by going maskless because they were horrified by the headlines: “‘We Will All Die’: Kingsbrook Hospital Nurses Demand Protective Gear After Their Colleagues Succumb To COVID-19.” Private citizens function as a de facto government to fill in the supply gap; the physicians who use black-market PPE must hide this fact from hospitals, which seem more concerned with bad optics than the safety of human lives.

Alexander Nagel, who had asked his friends to contribute to our shield fund, later thanked me on the phone for allowing him and his friends the opportunity to help, to be able to do something for the ICU physicians and nurses who were risking their lives not only to be abandoned but also humiliated and punished by the authorities.

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing a cracked world in which ratty masks were deemed better than nothing, and garbage bags served as a symbol of sartorial irony for the sad state of institutional fascism and all the examples of government failure: the great American stockpile of ventilators that arrived broken; the Navy hospital ship Comfort, a savior turned flaccid; the refrigerated trucks sent by FEMA to serve as curbside morgues; a bag-faced president, addicted to watching television, suggesting that people inject disinfectant as an idiocracy cure for the coronavirus, between incitements to insurrection and race war on Twitter. We have entered a new era of national delirium, in which prayers whispered by evangelical medical professionals, treating Covid patients in a Central Park field hospital with the power of Jesus Christ, are “healing people when medicine wasn’t able to.”

In late February, before we knew that the virus had already emerged in the United States, Irfan and I talked about what would happen if he died from the coronavirus. I would write a book about him that would get optioned for a film.

“You would have the perfect story,” I remarked. “A hard-working undocumented immigrant goes to ITT Tech”—what we jokingly called the Caribbean medical school he attended, which had a higher acceptance rate than those in the U.S.—“and becomes a sacrificial critical care doctor during a global pandemic, who dies from the very virus that plagues his patients.”

“Who will play me?” Irfan asked.

Riz Ahmed,” I said.

“Too skinny.” He wasn’t convinced.

What roles shall we assume in this unfolding narrative of tragedy, as our friends and neighbors are cast into suffering and danger; and across all continents we are helpless and desperate as an infectious disease, whose origins are yet unknown, fells bodies all around us? I’m reminded of Jackie Kennedy, responding to JFK’s assassination by reaching for a piece of her husband’s skull that had landed on the trunk of their limousine, as if saving him were as simple as returning this fragment back to the place where it belonged.

“I’m going to need therapy after this is all over,” Irfan confessed over text. “There’s no time to process anything, it’s just okay one’s dead, let’s move on. I’m literally triaging who gets what care. The ones that I withhold die.”

I would like to believe that a thousand face shields can make a difference. If only it were that easy.