Hoping to help contain the spread of coronavirus from afar, the Nebraska Chinese Association has been raising money for protective gear to help outfit health care providers in China who are on the front lines of the outbreak.

Linda Steele, president of the Omaha-based organization, said the effort is prompted by reports of shortages of medical supplies such as surgical masks, goggles and gowns in Chinese hospitals.

“It feels so bad, knowing those doctors and nurses are first in line but they don’t have enough protection gear to protect themselves to help people,” Steele said. “That’s why we want to do the best to help them.”

The aim is to help those battling the virus in China to stop it before it can spread further, she said. The organization’s slogan for the campaign is “Help Wuhan Help Us,” for the city at the center of the outbreak. The group is contributing $10,000 as seed money to encourage additional donations from businesses and individuals.

As of Saturday, more than 250 people had died and nearly 12,000 had been infected, most in China.

“Our hope is to contain the virus there in the affected area and not (for it) to spread further,” Steele said, “and we definitely don’t want it to spread to the United States.”

Steele said the group initially sought to collect medical-grade protective gear and send it to China. It has sent some, but those supplies have become increasingly difficult to come by as the outbreak has continued.

So instead, Steele said, the group has shifted its focus to raising money, which will be sent to the Red Cross in Wuhan to provide aid to hospitals. The association, she said, also wanted to avoid contributing to a rush on such products here in the United States. Details of how to donate are on the group’s website, omahachinese.net.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Nebraska also is raising funds for Red Cross Foundation of Wuhan, Wuhan Charity Federation and several large hospitals in Wuhan, said Jinyu Li, the group’s adviser.

The associations aren’t the only groups receiving requests from China. A contact in Yantai, Omaha’s sister city in China, also has made an appeal for masks, said Larry Uebner, a member of the Omaha Sister Cities Association board of directors.

Uebner said a visit by officials from Yantai scheduled for late February already has been canceled.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that hoarding of masks had begun in the United States, with some pharmacies reporting being sold out. A check earlier this week on Amazon.com for 3M’s N95 1860 — a type of mask, or respirator, used by health care providers in hospitals — indicated they were back-ordered.

But federal health officials this week cautioned against it.

Alex Azar, the U.S. health and human services secretary, said Tuesday that it was unnecessary for Americans to buy masks now.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, reiterated during a press call Thursday that the CDC “does not currently recommend the use of face masks in the general public.”

While photographs from around the world show people wearing surgical masks to avoid illness while traveling, wearing a mask is not among the practices the CDC recommends for healthy travelers. Travelers are advised to follow CDC guidelines at cdc.gov/travel.

Pharmacy chain CVS said it was working with its suppliers to meet customer demand.

“This demand may cause shortages at some store locations and we’ll re-supply those stores as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha said in an email.

Walgreens has been seeing greater demand for certain products, such as face masks and hand sanitizers, in many of its stores.

“We continually and closely monitor these types of situations to ensure that we have sufficient supply of those products that may be in greater demand in order to meet the needs of our customers,” said Megan Boyd, health care communications manager.

Any supply pinches do not appear to be affecting local health systems.

Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine, said the health system hasn’t had any trouble getting surgical masks.

It has not sought to order N95 masks because it has an adequate supply as part of the stockpile it maintains as part of its preparedness planning. That particular type of mask is rarely used day to day in health care. The most likely day-to-day use would involve tuberculosis or measles.

She said the health system is not likely to deplete its stockpile. Such supplies would be needed should the virus spread here.

Methodist Health System has been placed “on allocation” by some vendors, a spokeswoman said, meaning the health system can get only what it typically orders. Methodist hasn’t had any problem getting its usual supply of masks.

Meantime, manufacturer 3M, a leading maker of masks and other protective equipment, is seeing an increase in demand in China and other regions, a spokeswoman said. The company is ramping up production at plants around the world to meet it.

The spokeswoman said she could not comment on whether the 3M plant in Valley, Nebraska, is playing a role in that ramp-up. But the plant has a history of responding to such events.

According to its website, the Valley plant stepped up production of disposable respiratory masks to fill orders during the SARS epidemic in Asia and North America in 2003. It ran 24/7 in 2005 to meet spikes in demand for masks prompted by bird flu and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and again in 2008 in response to another viral outbreak.

Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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