“Outpouring of Support” as Researchers, Barnes & Noble Donate Lab Supplies to UConn Health

UConn Health white coats ready to be distributed at a ceremony held at John W. Patterson Auditorium at UConn Health in Farmington on March 22, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
UConn Health is on the frontline of the response to COVID-19, and in need of supplies like those collected by Yashan Zhang and others at UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“UConn is really my home,” said Yashan Zhang.

She lives in Farmington – just minutes from UConn Health – and she’s an assistant professor in residence in the Chemistry Department on UConn’s Hartford Campus. She’s also Chinese, though she’s been in Connecticut and part of the UConn community for the past 13 years.

“I started my PhD here in the Chemistry Department, and then I got my PhD and I got a job here,” Zhang said. “So I’ve been at UConn for a long time.”

For Zhang, it feels like the coronavirus pandemic has hit home twice: first, as it threatened her family and friends still living in China, and now, as its impact grows daily in the United States. It’s overwhelming for her at times – her voice fills with emotion when she talks about images of doctors forced to wear makeshift personal protective equipment, or to use the same protective mask for their whole shift. The daily reports of increasing positive cases of COVID-19 are tough for her to hear.

“Every day I see the numbers,” she said. “I always feel like, behind those numbers, they are actual, real people. That just makes me feel really sad.”

But like so many, it’s also empowered her to take action to help her neighbors and her UConn community – and her determination to help inspired a recent campus-wide effort to help support the doctors, nurses, and medical staff on the frontlines of the pandemic at UConn Health.

An active member of Connecticut’s Chinese community, Zhang and her friends and neighbors had been collecting what items they had in their own possession – she packed up a number of masks left over from painting her house to donate to UConn Health – and have been working with their own contacts in China to try to secure protective items made overseas to donate locally.

“Nobody wants this to happen,” Zhang said, “but if there’s something I can do to help a tiny little bit, I feel like I need to do it right away. And I know I am not alone, there are so many people showing their kindness and generosity during this coronavirus outbreak.”

It was in the course of this effort that she thought of her own lab in the Chemistry Department, and of the goggles there that would now go unused this semester as all classes transitioned to online learning. On Friday, March 20, she contacted her department head and the UConn Hartford campus director – who both fully supported her idea of donating their surplus laboratory supplies to UConn Health – and her initial email kicked off a chain of events that quickly evolved from a donation of some goggles to a University-wide effort to identify and secure available lab equipment for use at the hospital.

“I was really inspired by not just the good will and intent that Yashan was bringing, but the urgency and the real perspective that she brought to the situation,” said Bridget Inzirillo, UConn’s Interim Assistant Vice Provost for Finance and Director of Administration, who was brought in to help figure out the logistics of interdepartmental donations to UConn Health.

“She was really persistent,” Inzirillo said of Zhang. “I think she realized that there is a great need in the community, and especially at UConn Health, and it was very clear based on how persistent she was that we needed to move quickly.”

And move quickly they did.

By Sunday afternoon, a cross-departmental team that included the Provost’s Office, Procurement, and UConn’s Office of Emergency Management was assembling, and an email call was issued to deans and directors around campus.

“We’ve learned from a few of you that our faculty are eager to donate unused lab supplies to local healthcare facilities,” Inzirillo wrote in the email. “There is indeed great need in the community and we are encouraged that so many of our colleagues are thinking of ways to contribute.”

“I will tell you, in terms of the research community, they had a great outpouring of support and donations,” said Amy Allen, UConn’s Associate Director of Supply Chain Management, who was part of the cross-departmental team.

Working closely with Inzirillo, Allen oversaw the influx of emails about donations from lab directors, deans, and department heads eager to contribute to the effort. Kazem Kazerounian, dean of the School of Engineering, not only offered donations, he also provided space in the Castleman Building to serve as a drop point for the supplies and equipment.

“Even though distance separates us, in the end, we’re all one UConn, which is why we felt the need to donate PPE to the staff at UConn Health,” Kazerounian said of the effort. “Those medical professionals are on the frontline of this pandemic, and the least we can do is supply them with the supplies necessary to keep them safe.”

From Engineering, to Molecular and Cell Biology, to the Cadaver Lab, more than a dozen labs and departments in the UConn community stepped up to the plate to help meet some of the challenges faced by colleagues in Farmington.

“We had everything from masks to gloves to disposable gowns to booties – it was awesome,” said Allen. “I don’t even know where it all came from. I know I had a lot of emails, but this has kind of grown, because I still have people emailing me and saying, ‘hey, how can we donate?’”

At the same time, Barnes & Noble – the University’s partner at the UConn Bookstore – was gearing up to help as well.

“After all this started, I’m sitting at home watching the news and how there’s a desperate need for personal protective equipment,” said Len Oser, general manager of the UConn Bookstore. “I spoke to my boss, Regional Manager Neil LeBeau, and said, you know, we have these things, I think they’re probably approved for medical use – things like disposable scrubs and splash goggles that students taking biology and chemistry and veterinary sciences use. We both agreed immediately.”

A load of donated supplies on their way to UConn Health. (contributed photo)
A load of donated supplies on their way to UConn Health. (contributed photo)

Oser gathered the supplies and brought them to Allen’s donation point – a total of about 1,000 disposable scrubs and about 500 splash goggles.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m just so tired of sitting at home and watching CNN and watching these poor governors of states begging the federal government to help them with the supplies,” Oser said. “You’ve got to pull together and do things in the interest of saving lives at any cost, ahead of when you actually need these things. You need to have them on hand when the hospital folks, who put their lives on the line, need them so they can protect themselves. Once they get sick, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

In total, the Sunday afternoon email and donations from Barnes & Noble generated three pallet loads – each five to six feet tall – full of protective equipment and other supplies that were delivered from Storrs to UConn Health on Thursday, March 26.

While the response was lightning fast and overwhelmingly generous, both Inzirillo and Allen said it was indicative of UConn as a community.

“This is, I think, one small thing where people feel like they can help, even if it’s a box of latex gloves or three pairs of unused lab goggles that they have in their lab that’s just sitting there,” Inzirillo said. “I think people fundamentally want to help.”

“This is a very unique situation, but I think the community as a whole – we work together, anyways,” Allen said. She said another collection effort may be organized over the next week if the need and the community response is there for it.

For Zhang, a much happier emotion flooded into her voice at learning of the efforts in Storrs.

“Even now, most people are quarantined at home, but a lot of us are still trying to do something to benefit the whole community,” she said. She delivered her lab’s supplies to UConn Health herself on March 23, and she and her neighbors will likely continue their efforts to try to source supplies for local medical personnel as well as finding donations for local food banks and soup kitchens in need.

Inzirillo said she was grateful to Zhang for bringing the potential of lab donations to the forefront and for the role she got to play in the collection effort.

“I think we’re all eager to find light and inspiring moments in the current times, and for me, Yashan was the source of that, and I’m glad that I was able to help in just a small way,” she said.