They don’t have enough masks. They don’t have enough gowns. They don’t have enough help.

But at Open Cities Health Center, they use what they have to help as many as they can.

On a bright Friday morning, Dr. Vanessa Ng stood outside the Midtown St. Paul clinic, watching cars line up on Dunlap Street for drive-up COVID-19 testing.

“It’s never-ending,” she said, her smile hidden behind a mask and face shield. “But I never have to ask myself why I do this.”

Open Cities’ network of nonprofit health clinics serves some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the Twin Cities in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an economic collapse, in the middle of neighborhoods that were on fire a few weeks ago. They do it on shoestring budgets, with 15-year-old computers and scavenged personal protective equipment.

“Thank you.” Nearly everyone in line takes the time to say thank you to Ng and the other volunteers sweltering in the June heat under stifling layers of protective gear. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Months ago, when they first started testing, a third or more of the people who came to Open Cities with symptoms tested positive for coronavirus. Now the state is recommending that anyone who’s been to a vigil, mass gathering or crowded event during the George Floyd protests should get tested as a precaution.

Most of the people in line will be fine. Just 1% of the first 1,300 protesters tested positive.

That doesn’t change the need for masks and gear to protect the people swabbing all those throats and noses.

Every hospital, clinic and doctor’s office in the country faced shortages as America’s medical supply chain buckled under pandemic demand.

Months into the crisis, each piece of personal protective equipment that comes to Open Cities is a small victory.

Doctors and nurses here have haunted local hardware stores, trying to coax away a few extra dust masks or painter coveralls.

The mask Ng wore came from her cousins in Macau, who scoured local pharmacies for Chinese-made masks and shipped them in bulk care packages to St. Paul.

Open Cities medical director Dr. Cynthia Woods wore a face shield made by the Chippewa Middle School robotics club in North Oaks. The students made PPE on 3-D printers in the school lab and donated 100 of them to Open Cities.

Masks gets reused. Gowns get sprayed down with bleach or alcohol and hung up to dry for another day.

There’s a stash of actual N95 masks at the clinic, locked away like treasure. They’re saving them for the dental clinic when it reopens from its coronavirus hiatus.

The pandemic forced the clinic to scale back its services, lay off staff and turn to telemedicine. Few services will be riskier than dentistry, which puts dentists, technicians and patients face-to-face in an aerosolized cloud kicked up by the drill.

If they ration the N95 masks just for the dental clinic, Open Cities will need about 2,300 of them to make it through December. At last count, they had 101.

“It’s kind of ridiculous we’re still scrounging” for basic medical necessities months into the pandemic, Ng said.

But 101 of the good masks are better than none, and Open Cities is used to making the best from less.

The clinic opened in a church basement in 1967 with a volunteer staff determined to offer health care and health education to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. “Of all the forms of inequality,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

They serve the uninsured and underinsured, immigrants and impoverished neighborhoods. They almost had to close their doors this year until a combination of grants, layoffs and steep budget cuts kept the lights on.

So if you have any spare N95 masks, Open Cities could really use them. If you have a source for protective gowns, or face shields, or hand sanitizer, or disinfectant wipes, let them know.

If you have a few hours a week, they could really use some volunteers. Demand for COVID testing was so high that Friday, Open Cities had an orthopedic surgeon doing intake paperwork, an optometrist answering the phones and a psychologist bagging samples.

To help Open Cities out, or for more information, visit opencitieshealth.org

 

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks