NYMC Students Distribute Masks and Good Will with the Mask Transit Project
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and medical student clinical rotations were canceled, Shreya Makkapati, School of Medicine (SOM) Class 2021, knew she wanted to continue some form of patient care.
That opportunity arose in early April when she was approached by Aishwarya Raja, a medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, whom she met through a group for Indian females in medicine. Ms. Raja is a founder of Mask Transit, a grassroots organization that distributes masks and educational material about mask hygiene to vulnerable populations—populations Ms. Makkapati cared for during most of her third-year clerkships.
“We noticed that certain areas of New York City were being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. To combat that, we hoped access to masks would decrease that risk as well as decrease the burden on health care workers,” explained Ms. Makkapati. “We also provide educational material in five languages because mask hygiene is equally as important.”
Soon after that meeting, Ms. Makkapati returned to Boston to be with her family during the pandemic and wasted no time starting a chapter there. “I was able to virtually organize the New York chapter while also helping get the Boston chapter off the ground," said Ms. Makkapati, who serves as co-director of the New York City chapter and donation chair for the Boston Chapter.
When Daniel Bleykhman, SOM Class of 2023, returned home to Washington, D.C., he started a chapter there as well. Mask Transit continues to expand and has chapters in ten states and has distributed more than 70,000 masks.
Ms. Makkapati reached out to the New York Medical College (NYMC) Gold Humanism Honor Society, that coordinates student volunteer activities and spearheads their own initiatives in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and word quickly spread. “The response from my fellow students was tremendous. Everyone understood the importance of masks as a preventive measure and wanted to ensure that those in need have access,” she said.
Medical and physical therapy students are now paying it forward. Sarriyah Hanif, SOM Class of 2023, and her family, and a group of students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.) Program in the School of Health Sciences and Practice, led by Matthew Girard, D.P.T. Class of 2023, are using fabric donations from corporations and individuals to sew masks. An official NYMC Mask Transit student club is in the works.
Gurkamal Kaur, SOM Class of 2023, who is also working with Mask Transit, said “Sarriyah and I actually both graduated from a New York City high school where we took an ephebic oath and pledged to ‘leave the city no less, but rather greater than we found it.’ By joining the Mask Transit initiative, we were able to do exactly that, and help New York City, as well as other populations, fight the pandemic through the protection of masks. We hope to contribute throughout the academic year.”
Mask Transit distributes masks based on needs and requests from organizations including shelters, food pantries and rehabilitation centers, that would benefit from the masks and educational material. “We are focused on helping organizations that NYMC is connected with such as our affiliate hospitals and clinics, or neighboring shelters,” said Ms. Makkapati. They have donated masks to the Westchester Medical Center Behavioral Health Center and NYC Health + Hospitals/Metropolitan as well as Grasslands Shelter, Odyssey House and other organizations. They are also partnering with La Casita de la Salud, the NYMC student-run medical clinic, dedicated to providing care to the underserved population of East Harlem, where they will be distributing masks and educational material throughout the year.
“Much of our distribution focuses on shelters and the homeless population. During my work with Mask Transit, I learned a lot about the many challenges they face that were then exacerbated by the pandemic. They are already at a higher risk for chronic diseases, which has been shown to increase in the morbidity of COVID-19. Social distancing is near impossible for them in the streets or in a shelter. Many also face food insecurity and lack of access to water for handwashing and hygiene making them more susceptible to COVID-19,” said Ms. Makkapati. “Masks serve as a prevention method, but there is more than can be done in supporting our homeless population. Our work with Mask Transit is just the beginning.”