UCI medical student Mehron Dhillon stacks donations of personal protective equipment during a drive for supplies in the School of Medicine parking lot.
UCI medical student Mehron Dhillon stacks donations of personal protective equipment during a drive for supplies in the School of Medicine parking lot. Steve Zylius / UCI

When reports first emerged in January that a novel coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan, China, UCI Health administrators immediately launched into action.

They knew they needed to get ahead of imminent supply shortages caused by people stockpiling and hoarding. So managers activated critical stores of materials and spent more than $1 million to buy gloves, masks and other necessary medical items that could become popular commodities.

“It’s been nonstop since then,” says Susanna Rustad, executive director of operations at UCI Health. “The demand for some products grew four to 20 times the usual, depending on the category. So you can imagine the chaos of trying to get what we needed for our local community.”

As supply chains were disrupted and store shelves emptied, Orange County residents stepped up with donations of every size and kind – both money and personal protective equipment – that enabled UCI Health to care for patients and safeguard front-line medical workers. The outpouring of generosity has allowed UCI Health to weather a global shortage of PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of our own nurses donated a case of surgical masks she purchased for her family’s protection, because she felt that UCI Health could use them more. Another family drove from Pasadena to bring masks because they wanted to help UCI Health based on the exceptional care their father had received a month prior,” Rustad says. “Community members gave us their own organizations’ PPE, such as Garden Grove Unified School District. Harbor Freight and other corporations also had things on hand they wanted to contribute.”

The John and Mary Tu Foundation donated to UCI $1.25 million for research and another $1.25 million for healthcare workers. Carol Choi ’85 and Eugene Choi ’86, MBA ’01, provided 100,000 masks, leveraging their business connections to ship them via air freight and save time.

“We were lucky to be in that position, and we wanted to be proactive because UCI is our community. Time was of the essence, and we needed to give the masks as soon as possible,” says Carol Choi. “This is about sharing in a time of need, whether you can give money or volunteer your time or help a neighbor with grocery shopping. If everybody pitches in, we’ll all be better for it. UCI has stepped up in so many ways for our community, and we see that every day. We were so honored to do our part.”

UCI medical school students have also collected thousands of N95 face masks, surgical masks, cloth masks, face shields, disposable gowns, gloves, disinfectant wipes and goggles from UCI laboratories, community members and students for donation to UCI Medical Center.

Steve Dang, a registered nurse holds up his gloved hands with a thank you message written on the palms.
Steve Dang, a registered nurse at the Psychiatric Hospital of San Diego County, expresses his gratitude to the Face Mask OC Team for its donations. Volunteers led by a UCI junior made cloth face masks that have been delivered to hospitals and organizations across Southern California – including 500 at UCI Medical Center.
Courtesy of Vy Vu

Vy Vu, a junior in business administration, formed the Face Mask OC Team, recruiting 28 volunteers to create washable, triple-layer cloth face masks at home and help deliver them to dozens of hospitals and organizations across Southern California. In just five weeks during April and May, the team raised $7,500 for materials from 63 donors and distributed nearly 11,000 masks, including 500 at UCI Medical Center. Vu included a personal, handwritten note with each delivery, expressing her gratitude.

“I would like to sincerely thank the donors, the volunteers, my family, my UCI family, my friends and the community. We all made this campaign happen,” says the first-generation college student. “Together, we’ve been able to do much more than I imagined. At first, I thought, ‘I can’t deliver 1,000 masks!’ But now we’ve provided over 10 times that many.”

In mid-April, Catherine Zhou, who earned an MBA at The Paul Merage School of Business in 2004, reached out to UCI Health to see what kind of PPE was needed. She ended up partnering with alumni and parents in China to organize a fundraising drive. So far, they’ve collected more than $20,000 for UCI Health.

Meanwhile, members of the Rotary Club of Irvine have, to date, made 50,000 face shields. And restaurants including Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Jersey Mike’s have delivered meals to UCI healthcare workers.

In April, UCI Health was anticipating the worst: a surge in cases resulting from Orange County becoming another hot spot for the pandemic. Administrators prepared for a potential influx of up to 900 patients – more than double the hospital’s existing capacity of 418 beds.

Thankfully, that scenario never materialized. But with the California economy opening back up, UCI Health is once again looking ahead to a possible surge and ensuring that it’s well-stocked with PPE and other supplies, even as normal operations resume for people who need medical care.

UCI Health continues to accept donations of N95s, surgical masks, gowns and face shields. Every day, staff, doctors and nurses go through more than 5,000 surgical masks and hundreds of N95 masks.

“If we stay resolute to finish this marathon, steadfast in our conservation efforts and appropriate use, we will successfully balance the needs of today with what is potentially around the corner,” Rustad says. “If there’s a surge of cases in the fall, we will be ready.”