The duffel bags, all marked “Bangladesh,” sat in the lobby of Partners for World Health‘s headquarters on Friday, each stuffed with lifesaving medical supplies for a corner of the world where such things run somewhere between scarce and nonexistent.

But for now, they’re going nowhere.

Elizabeth McLellan

“We had to cancel,” said Elizabeth McLellan, founder and president of the Portland-based nonprofit, referring to a medical mission that was supposed to have departed for Bangladesh on March 1. While no cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been reported there yet, the disease has broken out in surrounding countries and, documented or not in Bangladesh, McLellan said, “I’m sure it’s there.”

For more than 10 years, the onetime nurse administrator from Portland has labored to take what our health system considers waste – from simple bandages still in their wrappers to birthing kits and complex diagnostic equipment – and get it to places where disease is everywhere and the tools to fight it aren’t.

Now, however, the whole world is getting sick. And as it does, Partners for World Health’s ever-expanding mission finds itself running into roadblocks.

Travel is now dicey, particularly through international air hubs where people from all over the planet convene by the thousands each day. The Bangladesh team would have flown through Dubai, home to the third largest airport in the world, making even a layover there a high-risk proposition.

At the same time, health professionals from throughout the United States, who have long volunteered with Partners for World Health for two-week missions to bring primary care, much-needed surgeries and other treatments to underserved populations, now find themselves having to back out. Not because they no longer want to go but because they can’t afford to spend 14 days in quarantine upon their return.

“They’re saying, ‘My job gave me two weeks off (for the mission), but not a month,” McLellan said.

Then there’s the actual supply chain, particularly the N-95 face masks, so named because they capture 95 percent of airborne particles as small as three-tenths of a micron.

A few weeks ago, McLellan got a call from a Chinese physician in New York City. Now a U.S. citizen, he wanted to know if Partners for World Health had any spare N-95 masks.

“We do,” McLellan told him. “How many do you want?”

“Fifty thousand,” the doctor replied.

He soon arrived with a truck, paid $3 per pound for the face masks, and immediately shipped them to his homeland, where the coronavirus now has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 3,000. A few days later, the doctor was back for 35,000 more masks – exhausting Partners for World Health’s supply.

Talk about a sign of the times. Only weeks ago, administrators at hospitals thought nothing of handing entire pallets of face masks over to Partners for World Health because the masks were nearing or just past their expiration date. Now, as demand for the masks far outstrips supply, the erstwhile trash is fast becoming treasure.

“The hospitals are telling us, ‘We want to hold onto them now. We’re waiting for our new supply to come in,’” McLellan said. “Whatever they have, expired or nonexpired, they’re holding onto.”

The good news, at least for now, is that Partners for World Health has ample inventory of other supplies and equipment to keep sending shipments out – even as it sees a drop in some of the things it takes in.

What began as a one-women operation in McLellan’s cramped Portland apartment in 2009 has grown over the past decade to encompass a 15,000-square-foot warehouse and sorting site on Walch Street in Portland, another 15,000-square-foot warehouse and shipping center for larger equipment a few miles away on Canco Road and satellite warehouses in Bangor, Presque Isle, two locations in Vermont and soon a facility in Worcester, Massachusetts. Where once it relied on “waste” from a handful of Maine hospitals, it now partners with major health centers all over New England.

To keep up with the endless supply and undying demand, the organization now boasts a full-time staff of 10, an annual operating budget of $750,000 (almost all the result of fundraising) and between 30 and 40 volunteers who rotate through the Walch Street headquarters on any given day. McLellan also has launched a $2 million capital campaign to purchase the Walch Street location from a benefactor who bought it and now leases it to Partners for World Health and another business.

In short, the coronavirus notwithstanding, McLellan’s good work will go on. The stuffed, 40-foot shipping containers – each worth an estimated $250,000 – will still go out at a rate of one or two per month.

And with a little luck, Partners for World Health medical missions will still head for Senegal in May, Ethiopia in August and South Sudan in November – provided those places stay relatively free of the COVID-19 outbreak. As of Saturday, there were no reported cases in Ethiopia or South Sudan, while Senegal had four.

“These are countries where, if coronavirus hits, it will be awful, just awful,” McLellan said. “Because they have no way to take care of themselves, and they don’t have the money to go get the extra fluids they need, or the Tylenol …”

That said, McLellan noted, when it comes to stemming if not stopping the spread of disease, many people in countries routinely hit by epidemics already know a lot more about prevention than we Americans do.

Take, for example, Sierra Leone on the western edge of Africa, where an Ebola virus caused upward of 4,000 deaths between 2014 and 2016. Having travelled there before, McLellan returned not long ago to find outdoor hand-washing stations everywhere and, much to her surprise, old acquaintances reluctant to shake her hand.

“They have learned, ‘We don’t want Ebola anymore, and what we need to do is not shake anybody’s hand and wash your hands all the time,’” McLellan said. “So, if that can happen in a developing country, one would think in our country that we would really change our public health practices and do those things and improve over time. We have to change our behavior. We have to change our culture.”

Meaning, in addition to greeting one another with backhand bumps (if we touch at all), it’s time we all cover our coughs with a tissue, wash our hands (a lot) and wipe down commonly touched surfaces like computer keyboards and cellphones and door handles.

It’s also a good time to support Partners for World Health. Long before we all started fretting about the perils of infectious disease, McLellan and her cadre were traversing the globe actually doing something about it.

Standing in her bustling warehouse, reflecting on what started in her own living room all those years ago, McLellan said she sometimes can’t help but take it all in and wonder, “What have I done?”

The woman has done wonders. And if ever there was a time to thank her, it’s now.


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