Liz Klinger knew there was a problem. It was the beginning of March, and the Bay Area native was starting to hear reports about personal protective equipment (or PPE) shortages on the news as coronavirus started to spread in the United States. Klinger called her mom, a nurse in the Bay Area, to ask about how conditions were at her hospital. She didn’t have a mask. Realizing her mom’s situation was widespread, one Thursday night Klinger jumped on a Zoom call with Alper. After some hours and a couple glasses of wine, they created Mask Match.
The site matches up donors with extra to healthcare workers, so they can ship the masks directly where they’re needed. These masks range from homemade masks to extra N95’s. So far, Mask Match has facilitated the delivery of over 500,000 masks to healthcare workers across the United States and Canada from over 350 volunteers. BUST spoke with Liz over the phone about how she made Mask Match a reality, and what it’s been like to run for the past couple of months.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know your mom is a nurse and you saw a need for masks, but how did the specific idea of matching masks come to you?
Chloe [Alper] and I both have backgrounds in supply chains. For Chloe, her company works with the medical supply chain. For myself, I’m a co-founder of Lioness, and we do biofeedback vibrators, so I’m pretty familiar with advanced electronics manufacturing. When there are different problems with supply shortages of components you’ve run out of and everyone’s competing to find that one component, whether it be iPhones or smart vibrators, it can be pretty disruptive to making and shipping products. So when we heard about the mask shortage, we were like, this is going to be really bad. And this is not just a component to make more iPhones or vibrators, it’s literally something that is a lifesaving device for healthcare workers. So we were just like, okay, this is going to be a complete cluster and the best and the easiest sources of masks, as we were kind of thinking it through, are the masks that are in our homes and in our closets, our garages, our workshops, or that some of our small businesses have too that they may not be using because of the shelter-in-place. And in this timeframe where we can’t wave a magic wand and have these masks appear, we can have a supply and a sort of this bandaid for this in-between time until the supply chain that works itself out.
What was that timeline like from conceiving the idea to making it a reality?
Basically, we started seeing this could be a problem at the beginning of March. And then Chloe and I just decided to get something started, so it was literally a Thursday night Zoom call, just like screen-sharing and making the website and it launched pretty much that night. Really once you have an idea, and you know how to set it up, it’s pretty easy to adjust and make things happen from there. After that, we got a lot of pickup and attention from people who were interested in donating and helping and healthcare workers who weren’t getting masks. They were literally restapling the elastics on their masks to reuse them which is just scary.
Had you ever done anything with that kind of quick turnaround before?
I work in and around and with other startups, so it kind of felt like one of those like hackathons, but this one actually could have like can have an impact on people.
Did you face challenges when developing the website or after you got it up and running?
Scaling the system was a big challenge for us. Fortunately, we partnered up that weekend after launching with two software engineers that were able to help build up this entire system to work with hundreds of volunteers and help match hundreds of thousands of masks. But in that time between figuring out like, okay how do we take all this from a spreadsheet and doing it all manually to make it faster and more effective, that was definitely challenging.
Were you at all surprised by the response Mask Match received?
Not at all. I think there’s a lot of us that feel helpless about the situation. And doing something like this is where if you already have masks, you already have something. It’s a really easy way for people to feel like they’re doing some good in a terrible situation. One of the things we did is we set up a program so that donors don’t have to leave their homes in order to be able to ship out the masks, which was really key early on when everything was shelter-in-place. USPS has an option to do click and ship where you can package up anything, put a label on it, and the post office can pick it up from your door or mailbox and deliver it straight to the healthcare worker who needs the mask. So it helps for a lot of people who like either didn’t want to bother the hospitals or may have been afraid to go to the hospital or otherwise go outside, or if they’re unable to go outside and still be able to help.
Why is it important that masks are given directly to healthcare workers?
In my mom’s experience and in other healthcare workers’ experiences, sometimes the particular department or the particular hospital had masks, but they weren’t giving them out or they weren’t allowing workers to bring masks from the outside. Over time, certain hospitals changed policies as the situation progressed, but at the time it was like, even if like you got masks to certain places, they wouldn’t be going to the health care workers. It empowered the healthcare workers to have at least some options for what they can do to protect themselves, to protect their patients and their families.
When the masks are matched, are certain areas or facilities prioritized?
Basically it’s a mix of the high need. We’re finding that a lot of the places with the highest need were smaller clinics, the EMS, the assisted living homes, Indian Health Services, prisons — places that are basically smaller and more likely to be at the end of the line for mask distributions or shipments. We also listened to people writing in. One of our volunteers is a superstar, and she went into it and dug and did the research and reached out to the heads of the different Indian Health Services. We were able to direct at least 60,000 different types of masks to five different clinics in the Navajo Nation. Basically, when matching we were figuring how to be as impactful as quickly as possible, and make it easy for the donors to help.
Have you heard any stories from healthcare workers or donors who’ve exchanged masks through Mask Match?
Oh gosh, a lot. One of the ones that we’re pretty proud of was there was a hospital in Mississippi that got hit by apparently one of the largest tornados U.S. history. I think about 60 healthcare workers at the hospital lost their homes. It sounded like a pretty tough situation because you have a bunch of volunteers coming in from Georgia and Louisiana and the surrounding states to help, but no one had masks and everyone’s coming close to each other. They had a couple of COVID cases. One of their employees wrote into Mask Match the week before and followed up after the tornado. We had a donor with a small business and we were able to direct a portion of 165,000 masks that he had. We were excited to connect those dots together of a business owner in Ohio to a hospital in Mississippi.
— Mask Match (@MaskMatch) May 28, 2020
In general, just all the people who have been donating and helping really span the age range. We’ve had Eagle Scouts doing their senior projects and making masks. There’s Granny Laurel on Twitter documenting her process and giving updates on her mask donations. There’s a family in Brooklyn who’s a seamstress family, who was donating masks while they were stuck in the workshop. It’s just really cool to be able to see like the age range and all the different people from all walks of life around the country who are coming together to be able to help all these different people around the country. You don’t have to be like anyone special, you know? You can just be yourself and help someone save a life.
It really creates this sense of connection too when we’re all stuck inside.
Yeah, I mean, you asked about where I got the idea and part of my thinking was from Reddit Gifts [ed: an online gift exchange between strangers on Reddit]. I was thinking about that in terms of the sentiment of people being able to do nice things for strangers and just the desire that we have to like help other people, delight other people and just connect with other people that we may not know. And especially I think with something like this, where it’s literally a life or death situation, being able to empower people to help someone who really needs it so that they can help other people, it’s almost like having this chain people helping each other. I think that’s really powerful right now, especially in a time where a lot of us are stuck at home or going into situations that might make us feel really uncomfortable or anxious.
How long do you plan on running this program?
As long as we need it. I’m hoping that Mask Match becomes unnecessary. Really, with the supply chain, it really should be correcting itself ideally. But it’s hard to say. There’s so many other needs in the healthcare system and so many other things that can be done, that there could be a future there. I have no idea. My main focus is just making sure people get protection if they need it.
If you’re interested in donating masks or know someone in need, visit Mask Match here.
More from BUST