The Johns Hopkins Health System has received thousands of donated face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many are medical grade, they do not meet the rigorous standards required to be used by health care workers in hospitals during patient care.
Enter Baltimore CONNECT, a nonprofit that forges stronger connections among community-based, faith-based and neighborhood associations, as well as Johns Hopkins faculty and staff members.
“Every week since March during our weekly conference call, our partner organizations have asked about masks,” says Albert Wu, Baltimore CONNECT’s president. “We heard repeatedly that people in our community do not have the protective equipment, like masks, that they need for day-to-day life.”
To help meet this need, the Baltimore CONNECT team and Wu, a Johns Hopkins Medicine general internist and a professor of health policy and management, coordinated the distribution of 23,380 face masks and 40 gallons of hand sanitizer to 26 community-based organizations in East and Southeast Baltimore near the medical campus.
“Everyone needs a mask and, for a long time, we didn’t even have masks for ourselves,” says Leon Purnell, executive director of the Men and Families Center, which received some of the face coverings. “Now we can help whole families, and everyone is relatively safe.”
Rates of COVID-19 are high in the ZIP codes surrounding The Johns Hopkins Hospital, notes Baltimore CONNECT’s acting director Lindsay Hebert. This is unsurprising considering the ZIP codes represent some of the most vulnerable members of the community.
“Community members have to go to work and go to the market, and they don’t always have this equipment to keep them protected,” Hebert says. “Masks may be the last thing on their minds. If we’re able to provide them, we’re helping organizations help their communities stay open, and we’re helping to keep everyone safe.”
Baltimore CONNECT began as a Johns Hopkins Health System and community research project to improve care and social service coordination and reduce hospital admissions in the neighborhoods surrounding the medical campus. In 2017, the group reorganized as a nonprofit focused on providing mental health services, dental access and care coordination to the community.
“In addition to coordinating access to information, Baltimore CONNECT is a funnel for funding and resources,” says Lee Bone, a member of Baltimore CONNECT’s steering committee and board and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Community organizations can seek advice and counsel from each other on a particular project, and they can get assistance building capacity so they can better serve their clients. We’re uniting the not-for-profit sector with the academic community.”
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore CONNECT and the local organizations met virtually to coordinate food access and distribution to community organizations, as well as a large-scale mask distribution. Today, 40 organizations meet weekly, including the Helping Up Mission, Fort Worthington Neighborhood Association, Dee’s Place, Maryland New Directions, the Franciscan Center, the Bea Gaddy Family Centers and McElderry Park Community Association.
“There are so many resources and so much information to share,” says Christine Weston, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Baltimore CONNECT board member. “The calls have helped everyone to know where the gaps are and where the redundancies are. It seems like the COVID crisis created a huge remobilization of Baltimore CONNECT in a way we’ve never had before.”
James Hill, Helping Up Mission’s assistant director of program administration and finance, says working with Baltimore CONNECT has helped his organization better serve the community.
“These partnerships are important and vital to the existence of any organization,” Hill says. “We were so grateful to receive the masks. We’re a residential organization with 321 clients on campus. If COVID starts here with 300 people, we’d have a big problem. Baltimore CONNECT helped curb a very serious potential health risk. They’re keeping our volunteers, visitors, employees and residents safe.”
Dee’s Place received 500 masks, according to Percy Smith, a peer recovery specialist. The organization serves the homeless and people recovering from addiction who lack access to face coverings, he says. For the Bea Gaddy Family Center, the masks will protect employees while they distribute food, according to Executive Director Cynthia Brooks.
“For all the million things Baltimore CONNECT could be doing, they took the time to deliver (the masks) personally,” she says. “That says a lot about how they feel about us in the organizations, as well as the community. The transmission of COVID is not going to stop until we all mask up and keep our distance. Without the masks, we didn’t feel safe to work with the public. Now I feel safer, and my staff feels safe.”