Because of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, Partners for World Health hasn’t held an international medical mission trip since early 2020 when founder and President Elizabeth McLellan, above, and others visited Bangladesh. If conditions allow, McLellan hopes to resume trips this summer. Contributed / Partners for World Health

International travel restrictions during the pandemic have forced Partners for World Health to suspend its medical missions, but the organization is still shipping out tons upon tons of medical supplies and equipment.

Benjamin Lussier’s oil on canvas “Rollers” is one of the pieces in Partners for World Health’s first virtual art auction. Contributed / Partners for World Health

The Portland-based nonprofit shipped 12 storage containers filled with medical equipment and supplies to destinations around the world in 2020, but founder and president Elizabeth McLellan said the hope is to double that number this year.

A popular fundraiser that Partners for World Health has come to rely on to help fund the $10,000 to $20,000 cost of shipping each container won’t be held this year due to COVID-19. Blue Wrap Project Runway, in which locally designed clothes made from blue wrap – the material hospitals use to sterilize surgical equipment – are modeled and auctioned, has been postponed to May 2022.

“Even with the current opening up of CDC guidelines, we knew we couldn’t do that for this year,” said Paul Golding, development and communication manager for Partners for World Health.

Since the inaugural event a decade ago, Blue Wrap Project Runway has grossed $250,000, said McLellan, who founded Partners for World Health in 2009.

In its place, the organization will hold its first virtual art auction. The auction is being put on in partnership with Moss Galleries in Falmouth and includes close to 150 works by 50 artists. Maine artists include Holly Brooks, Rush Brown, Michelle Hero Clarke, Torrie Dorsey, Diana Johnson, Judy Kane, Richard Keen, Benjamin Lussier, Dawn Maron, Cheryl Seavey, Todd Webb, Katarina Weslien and Janie Young.

The event, Golding said, is aimed at raising money for the organization, but also to support local artists. Starting bids range from $25 to $1,500. The hope is to raise at least $15,000 from the auction, which goes live at partnersworldhealth.betterworld.org/ on Monday, May 3. Bidding on the art, which includes watercolors, prints, photographs and oil paintings, closes at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 7.

Proceeds will help Partners for World Health meet its shipping goal for 2021. Five shipping containers have already been sent out this year, and another six are scheduled to be shipped by the end of June.  The organization this week launched a campaign to raise $20,000 in 20 days to send a container to India, which has been hit hard by a resurgence of COVID-19. In the past containers have gone to Libya, Kenya, Uganda, Syria, South Sudan, Armenia, Guatemala, Jamaica and Yemen.

Partners for World Health volunteers load a shipping container. One container usually holds $200,000 to $250,000 worth of medical supplies and equipment. Contributed / Partners for World Health

Each container, McLellan said weighs between 18,000 and 20,000 pounds and has between $200,000 and $250,000 worth of medical supplies and equipment, including beds, exam and physical therapy tables, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, ventilators, IV equipment, as well as items such as gauze, tape, syringes, soap and lab supplies.

Partners for World Health works  with more than 100 medical partners throughout New England to collect their excess medical supplies and equipment.

Last year the organization distributed 14,750 pounds of medical supplies locally and shipped 210,460 pounds of medical supplies internationally. Since 2009, it has collected more than 2 million pounds of medical supplies that were destined for the landfill, including 262,600 pounds last year.

During the pandemic year, the organization also has put a bigger focus on its local medical supply program, which provides low to no-cost medical supplies to those in need, Golding said. Partners for World Health also has loaned respirators, beds, IV poles and personal protection equipment supplies to hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients and has distributed thousands of masks to hospitals in the Northeast.

McLellan hopes the mission trips will resume later this year with trips to Ethiopia in August, Bangladesh in October and South Sudan in November.

“It’s pretty precarious right now because of the COVID situation,” she said.

The missions are contingent on whether international travel restrictions are eased.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control currently recommends that travelers not visit close to 150 countries across the world, including Ethiopia, Bangladesh and South Sudan.

The suspension of the medical missions has “definitely been impactful,” Golding said

“What we like to do is follow up with a trip after the container leaves here and reaches the other end,” Golding said.

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