Helping Alberta is a volunteer organization that provides personal protective equipment (PPE) to provincial frontline healthcare workers throughout Alberta. The organization has four key pillars: collecting unused PPE from companies, a GoFundMe to purchase PPE as needed, 3D printing face shields, and sewing cloth masks. Helping Alberta has been exceptionally helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic as the need for greater and faster access to PPE continues to be a challenge to the healthcare industry.
In this article, Felicia Krausert, a volunteer with Helping Alberta and a medical student at the University of Calgary, provides insight on how Helping Alberta assesses the needs of different community groups, lessons learned from her experience, and how students can help vulnerable populations both during the pandemic and beyond!
What motivated you to become involved with Helping Alberta?
I got involved in Helping Alberta quite by chance. After UofC clerkship students were pulled from clinical rotations in March, I was looking for ways to stay busy while still doing my part to help in the COVID-19 pandemic. I decided to volunteer for the group of medical students doing childcare for frontline healthcare workers, and ended up paired with the family of Dr. Breanne Everett, one of the awesome founders of the Helping Alberta team. I had a phone call and meeting with her before I started looking after her kiddos, and she explained the project she had started up with some other physicians, and the rest is history. I ended up recruiting many more medical students and heading up several teams within the Helping Alberta group!
Based on your experience, what factors should be considered when assessing and comparing the needs relating to COVID (e.g.: demand for PPE) across different community groups?
This is a great question, and one we struggled with. I think it’s been much easier to collect unused PPE and monetary donations, than to figure out how to get it where it’s needed most. We started by partnering with AHS and sending any PPE their way that met their safety standards (ie. N95s, surgical grade masks) because we felt healthcare workers were at the highest risk and therefore the highest priority. Then for other supplies (ie. non-surgical grade masks) we did a Needs Assessment for the community. We tried to think of places that are publicly funded and serve vulnerable communities, such as shelters and food banks. We contacted these places to ask what kind of/ how much PPE they might need and once they responded with a need we had each of them fill out questionnaires to help us better understand their specific needs and the urgency of those needs. Another wrench was thrown into all of this when the Alberta government announced that the province had such a surplus of PPE that we were donating to other provinces. While of course it’s great to be able to help others, especially areas of Canada that are even harder hit by COVID-19, that messaging didn’t match what we were hearing from local shelters and non-profit organizations who still urgently requested donations from us.
Please describe a memorable experience you have had with Helping Alberta and the impact that this experience has had on you.
Probably the most memorable experience I have had is when the great Ryan Reynolds (@vancityreynolds) shared a Helping Alberta post on his Instagram story! This post really helped increase our exposure to potential donors and recipients, and led to us making many key connections with groups doing similar work. The impact it had on me (other than being very exciting) was showing me the benefit of both leveraging connections (we reached Reynolds through UofC’s own med student Hailey Wickenheiser) and making new connections.
What lessons can be learned from COVID-19 in regards to optimizing the supply and use of health care equipment?
I think it comes down to (1) clear early messaging from leadership and (2) re-tooling existing industries to fill needs. For the first point, I think it’s easy to see the differences in preparedness between countries like Canada and the USA, and the difference that a few extra weeks makes. And while I believe Canada and Alberta have generally done well, changes in messaging have certainly confused the public. For example the shift from “the public shouldn’t wear masks, save it for healthcare workers” to “everyone can wear masks in public to prevent asymptomatic transmission”, and of course the “Alberta has enough PPE, let’s give it to other provinces” message. Of course I understand the need for some flexibility, but clear unified messaging really helps. As for the second point, it’s been great to see many industries come together for a common cause, from distilleries making hand sanitizer to researchers finding ways to sterilize and reuse masks.
From your experience, what have you learned about how students can help vulnerable populations?
I think students, and especially medical students, are in a unique place to have the time, ability and experience to do meaningful work with vulnerable populations. Students have so much energy and enthusiasm, and together form such a large group of often untapped potential. For example, students have been instrumental in providing scaled up contact tracing of COVID-19 in Alberta, and the model has been exported across the country!
Are you recruiting other students to help with Helping Alberta? If so, are there any specific qualifications for volunteers, or other information that we can share with prospective volunteers?
There’s a wide range of ways to get involved, from contacting donors to driving around to pick up or drop off donations. If anyone is interested, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org !