As coronavirus cases across the country surge, doctors and hospital personnel are sounding the alarm over a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, including face masks and gloves. Physicians are being asked to ration or reuse masks, and while some companies are donating their stockpiles or mobilizing to make more, health care professionals and lawmakers are begging the federal government to invoke the Defense Production Act to help, likening the shortage of protective gear to being “at war with no ammo.”
Over the weekend, The Farewell director Lulu Wang issued a call on Twitter to her more than 67,000 followers: “If you live in LA and have any unopened boxes of these masks please DM me. I will make you a cocktail in person when this is all over…!” When I spoke to Wang over the phone on Wednesday, she told me that she and her friends had collected 1,000 masks and 1,000 gloves so far, with three more donation drop-offs scheduled for this week.
We discussed her grassroots collection effort, what others can do to help in their communities, and how her famous Nai Nai (grandmother) is handling the crisis in China. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: Could you tell me more about how this mask drive came about?
Lulu Wang: I definitely can’t take credit for the idea. My friend has a sister who is an ER doctor, and the hospital she works at told all of the doctors that they were responsible for getting their own supplies, so that includes masks and gloves and shoe covers and goggles. They would give you a small stipend, but the problem is they’re not available for sale. And the people that are selling them are marking them up at insane percentages.
These doctors were not able to get enough masks, and a lot of them [were] using masks that were not a surgical grade, not using N95 masks, and sometimes having to just reuse the same mask over and over again. I think they were scared. If they treat a patient with [COVID-19], they need to immediately get rid of the mask and put on a new one. It’s just really not enough. All I really did was to help amplify that message by putting it on my social media and was really pleased by how many people came through.
Were you expecting that level of response?
No, I definitely was not expecting so many people to be willing to donate them. I think a lot of people might have a lot of these masks but not realize that they have them. People out there, whether they’re people that work in construction or special effects, probably have them in storage without realizing it. I think it made people realize, Oh, I actually have a lot of these masks and we’re not using them, so we’ll donate them. As of this weekend, we got like a thousand masks and a thousand pairs of gloves.
How many people were picking up the supplies? How long did it take to collect all of them?
It was the night before the lockdown, so I think there were two or three people doing collections before the lockdown at 11:45 or midnight. And then we realized that that was not sustainable because a lot of people who messaged only had like two to five masks, which is still helpful—it all adds up—but it’s impossible for my friends to drive around. The next day we ended up just doing driveway drop-off donations. People were able to come to the driveway and drop them off. And then this week we have three different locations and times.
That’s a lot more efficient. It also puts my friends who were collecting less at risk. It’s just not sustainable. That’s the frustration, is that the hospitals themselves are not amplifying this message of how much help they really need. And I think if they were publicly talking about this, maybe it would put pressure on the government. I don’t have the solution, except to say that it’s just not sustainable, a few people to do this grassroots, because in all of Los Angeles, there’s not enough masks that people have at their home that would sustain [doctors through] this epidemic.
How much longer are you planning to continue to collect masks?
I think it depends on how we do this week with the drop-off. But I think that there’s starting to be better systems in place. I’ve heard that hospitals themselves are starting to set up donation drop-off. Hospitals are not so happy about us doing this off the grid because I think it’s a publicity issue for them.
It’s very tricky because we’re trying to help, but we don’t want to put the jobs of any of the doctors that we’re helping on the line. That’s a whole other level of frustration and anger. Instead of absolutely screaming for help on the rooftops, [hospitals] don’t want the bad press.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the response you’ve gotten from the ER doctors who are receiving the supplies?
I think they just feel really grateful because a lot of people in the administration at the hospital were telling them not to use masks. And these are not doctors [telling them not to use masks], these are not trained medical professionals. They’re executives. Because there is a shortage, they were saying only use N95 masks if you are knowingly treating a [COVID-19] patient. The problem is there’s not enough tests, and so it’s impossible to know who has it.
Doctors have told me that they feel alone in this struggle. They don’t feel like anybody cares. I didn’t know this before, but my friend who’s an ER doctor said a lot of emergency room physicians, particularly in California, are independent contractors, which means they don’t work directly for the hospital and they are not on salary. They are hired by a company that is then contracted by the hospital. So these doctors are responsible for their own sick leave, kind of like an Uber driver.
If they’re sick, they don’t get paid. And I think that it was just this feeling of being on the front lines and putting their lives in danger, but nobody actually cares about them staying safe. If they get sick, it’s not safe for them to treat patients, of course, but they also stop getting paid. They have no way of paying their bills. It’s this tricky thing of, like, OK, I have a little bit of a sore throat. Do I stay home so I don’t put anyone in danger? But then how do I pay my bills?
And then on top of that, not having masks or any kind of supplies to stay safe and to keep their patients safe just makes it that much more stressful. The thing that I heard the most was that psychologically, emotionally, it was meaningful that so many people do care about them. It made them feel like they weren’t alone, and that people care about their safety.
Do you have any advice for people who want to replicate your collection effort?
I think that it’s pretty simple. Again, it’s not sustainable, but any little bit helps. Find a way to collect the masks, whether it’s having a drop-off location or doing some research to see whether their local hospital is directly taking donations. For me, it was really just using Twitter. Anybody who has a social following to amplify the message. But I think the bigger thing is that we really need to put the pressure on hospitals, but mostly on the government, because the only way to make this sustainable is if the government comes through and helps to make sure that all of the hospitals are properly supplied.
In your original tweet, you said you would make a cocktail in person for people once this is all over. Are you planning to have a giant cocktail party when this is all over?
You can tell that I didn’t expect that many responses. I thought, well, maybe like 20, a hundred people will have masks, not thousands. I’m not sure that I can come through on that promise. But we did joke about doing curbside cocktails because I did that cocktail pop-up like three weeks before all of the outbreaks happened, and we had like 300 people show up. So Barry [Jenkins] and I’ve been joking about doing curbside cocktails, so when we make people a cocktail, we’ll just leave it in the driveway. And people will just come through for it.
It’s like, oh, we make like a batch of it, and people will have to just come through with their own cup or something. I don’t know that there’s a safe way to do cocktails. But yeah, hopefully when we come through, [Black List founder Franklin Leonard] and I will host another one of those pop-up cocktail things and we can celebrate. But until then, everyone should just stay home and stay safe.
How are you handling the coronavirus crisis personally? Are you and Barry self-isolating together?
We just started isolating together yesterday because he was on set for the last year and they just wrapped. When he came back, because he was on set, he self-isolated. And then I was also traveling the last couple of weekends, so I also self-isolated. And once we self-isolated for long enough and both felt OK, that’s when we got together. So yeah, we’re doing OK. I can’t speak for him, but I feel really, really, really lucky because I’m currently running a writers room [for the series The Expatriates]. I feel lucky that I’m able to work from home. It’s keeping me busy, and I know a lot of people, including my brother who works in the restaurant business, have lost their jobs. I think that’s why, more than ever, I feel like whatever I can do to help to bring awareness, I’m trying to do.
Have any of your projects been affected by this?
Mine has not yet. Before all this happened, we broke off to write our own episodes. There are five writers including me, and I’m showrunning, but we were supposed to get back together at the end of the month, which we’re going to just have to do digitally now. I wouldn’t say that it’s really affected us. Of course, it’s not the same as being in person, but at least we’re still able to work on the show together.
How have your parents and your grandma been responding to the crisis?
A lot of panic, lots of phone calls. My grandma has been isolated much longer, obviously, because the virus hit them first over there [in China]. But I think what’s interesting is that we’re all reading very different news sources. There’s an abundance of information, and it’s hard to know what’s real, even in America. Some of the stuff that my grandma will say, I’m like, “Grandma, that’s not true at all.” I think her level of fear is heightened by the news that she reads. And so I’m just trying to keep everybody calm but scared enough that everyone stays home.
Even with my parents, I’m like, “Do not go to Home Depot. Is that really essential?” I think we should be scared enough where we stay home, but not so scared that we’re letting the fear run our lives. Which happens, of course, with parents and grandparents when their kids are not in the same place and this is happening.