Hospitals across the United States, facing a dire shortage of protective medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, have found help from an unusual source - a small auto shop based in Fremont.
034Motorsport typically handles high-performance upgrades and maintenance for motorsports enthusiasts. But the shop's international supply chain became a lifeline in early March when a supplier in China told company president Javad Shadzi that a nearby Chinese pharmacy materials company had access to protective masks.
Shelter-in-place orders were still days away in California, but the virus had already made an indelible mark on Shadzi's life. His close friend in Indiana was one of the first in the state to contract the virus, and ultimately died of COVID-19 after nearly two weeks on a ventilator.
Shadzi learned from the intensive care unit at the hospital that nurses and doctors were struggling to find masks, or wearing them repeatedly for days at a time. He put out a social media call for hospitals in need of supplies and, in a burst, received hundreds of "heartbreaking" emails - even from renowned hospitals.
"I'm just a business guy. I never thought that surgeons with 10 years of schooling, basically a Ph.D., would be begging me for masks," Shadzi said. Many doctors who emailed him did so even though they feared losing their jobs, as the auto shop's KN95 masks (similar to N95, but without adjustable straps) weren't yet approved for use in medical facilities.
After receiving a $25,000 loan from 034Motorsport's parent company, workers in different areas of the shop put in long hours to order, sort, package and ship over 20,000 masks in 10 days, all while still operating as an "essential business" under a regionwide shelter-in-place order. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration broadened its rules for N95 respirators around the same time.
The Charles Regional Medical Center at the University of Maryland was among those able to make use of 1,000 masks sent by the auto shop. "It's a tremendous shot in the arm for us. Instantly, it more than doubled our available supply of N95 masks," Susan Mudd Vogel, director of the center, said in a blog post.
As hospitals and state governments struggle with counterfeit and faulty masks, even recalling thousands, Shadzi is grateful he has an existing, trusted relationship with a supplier. He would love to order and ship a million masks, but the small company doesn't have the finances to front another large round of orders, despite over $25,000 in donations from a GoFundMe page.
"I shouldn't have to do this," Shadzi said. "No tiny little business that sells car parts should have to raise money and source basic protective equipment for hospitals. We need to make sure as a country that this never happens again, because it's just too important."
The hardest part of the process for Shadzi has been understanding his efforts may not be enough to fill the vast need. He's cut down orders despite dozens of daily requests, and working to recruit larger sponsors.
"It's gotten to the point where I can either say, 'No we don't have anymore,' or, 'I can send you some, hang on there's more coming,' " Shadzi said. "Our ultimate goal is to try to get masks in the hands of these medical workers, just to try and bridge the gap between them and the future where hopefully the supply would recover."