NEW YORK — There was nothing but navy, teal and baby blue all the way down the block, as hospital workers in layers of protective gear streamed into a line that captured the attention of three police cars.
They were headed to an open box truck with a big sign taped to the side: "Show your hospital ID: Get free PPEs."
Some wanted to know whom to thank, and they'd inevitably be waved over to a slight, blond woman named Rhonda Roland Shearer. Just as she had done after 9/11, distributing millions of dollars in supplies to workers at Ground Zero that she'd mobilized herself, Shearer was in the thick of things — having once again leveraged a substantial line of credit to do so.
"This is to save the skin behind your ears!" she said, handing out curious strips of plastic notches, similar to barrettes, that hold the loops of surgical masks.
The "ear savers" were, as Shearer does best, a solution to a problem nearly everyone in line said they had, but no one had quite realized they needed fixed.
Nationwide, the shortage of personal protective equipment has fueled a tense political standoff between federal, state and local government officials, one that has left many frontline medical workers to fend for themselves amid the ongoing crisis. In mid-March, to the frustration of state officials and hospital administrators, President Donald Trump advised the country's governors "try to get it yourself," forcing states and hospitals into competition with one another for lifesaving PPE.
Shearer doesn't necessarily present as a skilled medical supplies haggler, but that's all she does now. A 65-year-old sculptor whose late husband was the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, she's a rarity in the tony Manhattan neighborhood of Soho where she's lived in an artists' loft for decades. Nearly everyone else, it seems, fled to their second homes in the Hamptons or even farther afield when the coronavirus pandemic hit. "I have no country house, no car," said Shearer, and besides, this is where she feels at home, running not away from, but toward the fire.
"This feels like having gold. Gold! Because we don't have sufficient supplies. It's very, very bad," said Karen Titus, a nurse clutching a Shearer-issued bag containing seven surgical masks, a KN95 filter and a face shield. Titus was wearing the PPE she'd improvised by taping "chucks," or disposable pee pads, around her calves and shoe coverings made from cut-up socks.
Everyone in line was either from the city-run Kings County Hospital, like Titus, or the state-run University Hospital of Brooklyn across the street. Both are overwhelmed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and serve a low-income neighborhood. Some nurses showed up wearing rubber gas masks they'd bought in hardware stores.
Shearer wasn't alone. This project, called Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes, is a partnership with Housing Works, a New York-based nonprofit serving the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS. Shearer and her then-husband, investor H. Joseph Allen, were the group's first benefactors in 1990. Housing Works CEO Charles King also credits Shearer with the idea that Housing Works start a high-end thrift store to raise money and employ clients. They now have 12 throughout the city.
Shearer's goal with the PPE, as it was for months after the 2001 terrorist attack that leveled Lower Manhattan's twin towers, is to bypass an equipment distribution system that she believes is failing workers on the front lines, nonprofit workers and the homeless. "I'm running literally 18-hour, 20-hour days," she said, either hunting down good prices for the PPE or standing outside hospitals asking employees what they need.
Over the past month, according to bank statements and receipts shared with The Washington Post, Shearer has gone from zero debt to borrowing more than $600,000 on a home equity line of credit to buy wholesale masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and face shields. She leveraged about $1 million in this way after 9/11.
Shearer had tried to source deals and pass them along to city agencies, but "they didn't move fast enough," she said, and the PPE she'd secured for New York's frontline workers instead "went to somebody else."
The only way to get workers what they needed, she decided, was to buy and distribute it herself. And she knew she could because she'd done it before.
Trials and tribulations
"I was delighted to have her there," said Harry Meyers, retired assistant chief of the FDNY who was the original Ground Zero incident commander managing 1,800 men digging victims' remains out of the debris.
As documented at the time, the city's emergency management agency called the police on Shearer multiple times to arrest her for handing out items like hard hats, T-shirts, underwear, Carhartt pants and jackets, rakes, trowels and power tools.
It was Shearer's daughter, London Shearer Allen, who first ran toward "the Pile" hours after the towers fell, with a hand truck loaded with leather gloves and face masks from her mother's sculpture studio. Shearer followed five days later, after getting stuck at the border in Canada with Gould.
"It just made life so much easier for my guys to do their job safely," Meyers said. "At the time, the bureaucracy was entirely incapable of supplying the things we needed because nothing like it had ever happened before. It's kind of like this virus."
At first, Shearer tried donating through official channels with the office of emergency management, but the supplies got loaded up on a barge and when she talked to workers, they said they never saw them. "I didn't have to do that more than a couple days to see, 'Boy, am I flushing money down the toilet,' " she said.
She vowed from then on that she would bypass bulk donations and only do direct issuance, like in the military — meaning she would hand over supplies herself and get sizes of the individual recipients, "so we were able to give, you know, Firefighter Callahan his size 22 boots that are hard to get." She also went around to Salvation Army and the Red Cross outposts, which gave her lists of things they needed.
Wanting to get the right goods into the right people's hands is also why she isn't buying N95 masks to give out for free now. Fit on those can be a matter of life or death, and she thinks it's irresponsible not to have fit testings. "It's particularly important now because women have small faces," she said.
Key to her Ground Zero operation was C.J. Vallone, owner of DiVal Safety, a construction-gear distributor in Buffalo, who drove down a truck full of donations, and soon gave her a $1 million line of credit.
"That was spooky," said Vallone about giving that much trust to a stranger. "But she was so sincere, and being able to help — that is one of the proudest moments of my professional life." Every month he'd drive down newly purchased supplies and donations.
When she heard about the problems with the supply chain in late February, Shearer said she thought, "This is a complete Groundhog Day."
It was a call from her daughter that activated Shearer again. "She said, 'Mom, I really think that this is something maybe we can help on,' " Shearer said. "And when your child points to something, a right to do to correct wrongs. Then that's it for me. I get on a mission."
She called people she knew at the FDNY and they told her they were worried because they had no masks for doing crowd control. Then she called Vallone, who donated pallets of gloves and Tyvek suits.
"It was like Christmas. They just showed up," Shearer said. But she needed a medical supplier who could ship things fast. Soon she'd made contact with Mayank Parikh, owner of the independent Super Health Pharmacy, with nine stores in the city and New Jersey, who started helping her source big orders out of his State Island flagship. The first was 100,000 three-ply surgical masks, which he managed to ship to her in 24 hours.
Parikh only orders through his trusted supply chain — either name brands or manufacturers on the Food and Drug Administration's list of approved PPE vendors. He also donated the trucks she's using, and paid for the Cut Red Tape 4 Heros banners. Shearer sources everything herself, ordering from other vendors or directly from manufacturers, too, following the same standards.
"I feel like I've known her for decades, but it's been months," he said. "She's awesome. She really helps keep the energy and fire going. And it just really motivates me to help get her these items, you know?"
COVID-19 is bringing back many memories of 19 years ago.
Gould died after a recurrence of cancer in 2002, as Shearer was still distributing supplies at Ground Zero. Shearer cries often when she talks about being there. "I just need a second."
Recently, London, 41, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer related to the toxins at Ground Zero, and her surgery was paid for by the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. "We're so happy," Shearer said. "We just got the news that the margins are clear, and they think she'll have a full recovery." A similar cancer killed Shearer's partner of 15 years after Gould, FDNY Chief Ronald R. Spadafora. They met after they'd finished up at the site. "He was someone I could relate to because it does affect you, the trauma," she said.
But also as happened 19 years ago, Shearer's efforts are running into bureaucratic walls. University Hospital was the only one of a dozen hospitals that Shearer and Housing Works have called that welcomed them onto their property. She just showed up outside public hospitals like Kings County, Bellevue, and North Central Bronx, and was inundated with not just hospital workers but public housing residents and the homeless. One hospital used security to get them to move their operation across the street, she said.
"The ironic twist is that the same admin people who called the police came out to get PPEs and said they were sorry," said Jaron Benjamin, Housing Works's vice president of advocacy, who's been doing most of the outreach to hospitals to partner with them or let them park on their property.
Among the sticking points are that Shearer wants to know the names and sizes of employees she's outfitting, and she wants to hand out of her truck with photographers present. "They want to do it in secret and I don't do secret things, I'm sorry," she said. "Part of the healing of all of this is transparency. We don't just bring supplies. We bring respect and community."
Besides, she said, "I need to get the word out so hopefully more people help out."
One director of donations, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job, explained that his hospital had a policy of only accepting donations to a general stockpile that could be vetted for quality. "It's about protecting our staff," the director said.
Shearer said she's provided receipts for American-made, name-brand purchases — sealed boxes of DuPont and Medline, all FDA approved.
An emergency medical technician in Queens, who also asked not to be named, said he was shocked. "It doesn't make any sense to me why anyone would turn away free PPE."
Benjamin said he's heard from employees that "if there's any hesitation from the hospitals, it's because they don't want to publicly look like they can't provide for their staff."
‘That’s what it’s for!"
Back outside the hospitals in Brooklyn, pathologists were streaming back to their work stations each carrying a box of 25 Tyvek suits, donated by Parikh, which in today's market can go for $20 each. That was $15,000 the hospital didn't have to spend, Shearer said.
Shearer chatted with emergency room nurse Jacqueline Reid, who said she was grateful to have masks to take home, since all hospital-issued masks had to be checked out and checked back in. "I have a daughter who had a bone-marrow transplant, and I just feel like this is so nice for her," Reid said.
"That's what it's for!" Shearer said. "This is for you, ladies. Because at the end of your shift, you throw away your mask and what do you wear home? How do you shop?"
She and Housing Works staffers passed out 2,200 kits of PPE and ran out of 50 gallons of hand sanitizer in an hour. Shearer has since acquired a van from Parikh to do smaller runs to veterans’ hospitals. Her worry now is not just about hospital workers but the homeless; her research, she said, showed that many shelters on Staten Island had closed because of a lack of PPE — which might account for why the subways are so overrun. She’s provided PPE for the two shelters King set up in hotels for homeless people with COVID-19.
"If I'm insane," she said, she could borrow the full $2 million line of credit, which if she fails to pay it off, could result in the loss of the Soho loft she bought with Gould.
The Go Fund Me page that Housing Works had set up to help reimburse her costs was only $26,400 toward the well over a half-million she’d already spent, but Shearer said she had no intention of making herself whole any time soon. “I’d rather focus on people giving me money so I can keep doing this. I want to keep buying PPE,” she said. “I’m just focused on helping the workers that are taking the real risk.”