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One Alum's Rapid Response: COVID-19 Mask Donation

As Wui-Chiang Lee, MD, PhD ’05, MHS ’02, watched the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard light up with red hot spots, he knew from his own 2003 SARS epidemic experience he needed to get busy—now.

Lee could see that his alma mater, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was at the center of the COVID-19 response, and he wanted to help.

A Taiwan native, Lee quickly reached out to people he was still in close contact with—Bloomberg School Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Laura Morlock and Johns Hopkins Hospital Clinical Engineer Yih-Jang Chang. Chang shared that the mask shortage was significant, and Morlock explained that although the School’s wet labs remained open, staff needed PPE to work in them. With that information, Lee got super-busy, coordinating the purchase and delivery of 100,000 high-quality medical masks to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Bloomberg School earlier this spring.

"An alum in time of need is an alum indeed," he wrote in a recent email.

100K mask donor thank you

As director of Medical Affairs and Planning for Taipei Veterans General Hospital (TVGH) in Taiwan, Lee is part of the leadership team guiding the hospital through its own COVID-19 response which started in January. He knew how critical masks are to keeping healthcare providers and others safe by reducing their exposure to airborne transmission of the virus. Working with several Taiwanese donors, led by Mr. Emmet Hsu, President of Shinlin Electric & Engineering, Lee and the group identified a Chinese manufacturer and coordinated the purchase and shipment of 100,000 masks to Baltimore. While these masks cannot be used for the care of COVID-19 patients, they are still very effective for non-healthcare providers, such as techs, faculty, staff, and students, and can be used safely in offices and lab settings.

According to Lee, shipping the masks was the real challenge because the global supply chain is so crippled. “Air transportation was completely chaotic,” writes Lee, “and the entire donation plan was almost suspended.” Held at customs for several weeks, the order was split in two and eventually shipped in April and June to the US and delivered for use at the Bloomberg School, the University, and the Hopkins Health System.

Lee’s instincts have always led him to act decisively. During his PhD program in May 2003, he was attending a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) information seminar in Sheldon Hall when he decided he couldn’t just sit and listen anymore—he needed to do something, even if he was 1,000 miles away from the epidemic’s center in his native Taiwan. Brainstorming with Biochemistry Professor P.C. Huang, Lee and several fellow Taiwanese students drafted a comprehensive SARS epidemic control program. Huang and the students then presented it to the Taiwanese health ministry. Within weeks, their proposal was adopted almost in its entirety by the Taiwanese government.

Today, Lee is rightfully proud of  both his country and TVGH’s COVID-19 response. In addition to marking zero coronavirus cases in Taiwan on April 17, the hospital was able to avoid shut down, treat all patients whether suffering from coronavirus or other ailments while keeping its medical staff safe and virus-free. As of this writing, all outpatient and inpatient services and lab testing are operating on normal schedules.

Lee believes that the key to the TVGH team and Taiwan’s success in responding to the pandemic was and continues to be active preparation. “Taiwan’s success did not come out of sheer luck. Instead, Taiwan drew the right lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003 and has taken a series of actions in governmental reorganization, medical care system preparedness, and public engagement. That is, we have prepared for a virus epidemic for seventeen years.”

Lee writes how grateful he is for his Hopkins training, which helped him and his fellow Taiwanese public health and medical community members manage both COVID-19 and SARS. Nearly two decades later, he writes, “I am honored to have an opportunity to pay back my alma mater when she needs me.”