Campus News

UK Faculty Band Together, Acquire More Than 6,500 Masks for UK HealthCare

Photo of doctor putting on mask
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 15, 2020) Many are grappling with a new reality as the impacts of COVID-19 continue to ripple across all facets of economic and social life. For Haoying Sun, the devastating effects hit close to home long before the global pandemic spread to the United States.

“I moved to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, but my parents still live in China,” she said. “When I read the news of Wuhan being locked down on Jan. 23, I couldn’t believe it.”

In the months that followed, Sun continued her day-to-day work as an assistant professor in the UK Gatton College of Business and Economics. But she paid close attention as tragic stories from the epicenter of the novel coronavirus filled her social media feeds.

Sun recalls feeling extremely emotional as doctors and nurses became infected due to the lack of proper PPE protection. “That hit me really hard.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Commonwealth, Sun was compelled and determined to help those on the front lines. “The medical personnel risk their lives to protect ours. We cannot let them do that without proper protection.”

N95 respirators are among the most important PPE to prevent infection, and there is an extreme shortage across the U.S. So, how was Sun going to get her hands on one of the most sought-after products?

That’s where her expertise in supply chain management comes into play.

“I know that most of the production capacity of these PPEs is in China. The global PPE supply chain has been disrupted badly due to the rising global demand,” Sun explained. “Mitigating supply chain disruption is related to my field of study, so the idea of focusing on sourcing masks came very natural to me.”

But attaining hundreds of masks, on short notice, would require more than expertise — it would also require money.

Sun reached out to Tracy Lu, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE), for support. Years ago, Lu started a WeChat — as a way for UK Chinese and Chinese-American faculty members to connect. The idea of collecting money to purchase masks for UK HealthCare was mentioned to the group.

Without hesitation — they answered Sun’s plea. In just 24 hours, nearly 70 faculty members raised more than $5,000.

“Everyone in this group leveraged their expertise in various academic fields. Be it time, effort or money — so many faculty members contributed in a lot of ways,” Lu said. “As one member tagged on the boxes of donated masks, the whole group just wanted to say, ‘Thank you for fighting the virus for us. We are with you. Please stay strong and safe.’”

"As a physician being trained and currently working at UK, I’m a proud member of UKHC. Seeing the devastating impact of COVID-19 in China, I don’t want to see the same thing happen at home in Kentucky,” Dr. Xiaoqin Wang, in the Department of Radiology in the Markey Cancer Center, added. “I strongly believe, that if we cannot protect our front-line health care professionals, we cannot protect our patients and community during this pandemic."

The first order of 500 N95 masks, sourced from Houston, arrived earlier this month and were donated to UK HealthCare’s emergency room, department of surgery and division of pulmonary medicine. Two more orders, one from New York and one from Sun’s college roommate in China, were also recently received and donated.

But the generosity doesn’t stop there.

Zheng Yang, a Gatton College alumnus, contacted Sun and mailed her 100 pieces of KN95 from China. And several Chinese international students donated their own masks. It’s common in the Chinese culture to wear masks for public health reasons beyond COVID-19. Additionally, Joy Xu, the wife of a doctoral student from the College of Fine Arts, donated KN95 that her relatives mailed.  

“This pandemic is such an unfortunate event for everyone. Many people’s lives are forever changed. On the other hand, it is amazing to see the kindness in people,” Sun continued. “I was overwhelmed by the trust strangers placed in me during this event, and even more, by their generosity. This is a true demonstration of volunteerism in its best form at the worst time of our lives.”

To date, 1,600 pieces of N95 masks, plus 5,000 pieces of disposable medical masks, have been acquired. The impressive response serves as proof — the power of innovation and collaboration is truly transformative.

“Many people might think that the goal of the business school education is to help corporations make more money, but business school education is at its best when it helps society by doing good.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.