It's still uncertain whether Burning Man, the annual arts festival held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, will operate this summer. But Burners are still gathering, albeit virtually, to donate supplies like masks for hospitals and others in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. They're also working with other groups to make it easier for other people to donate through a new website, GetUsPPE.org, a database of hospitals in need of supplies.
A couple weeks ago, Burning Man-goer and Harvard University professor Ethan Garner was prompted by a dean to donate personal protective equipment after his lab was closed. Garner remembered he had masks in a storage bin for Burning Man and knew others who did, too. So he and friends connected with the Burners Without Borders organization, which offered assistance and put out a donation call to the Burning Man community.
Hospitals and healthcare facilities in the U.S. are facing a tight supply of personal protective equipment, including masks and gowns, and groups are springing up to help donate or make supplies to help fill the gap.
"Because there is a large amount of dust in this desert location, Burners tend to have a lot of [personal protective equipment]," Christopher Breedlove, Director of Civic Activation at the Burning Man Project, who oversees programs including Burners Without Borders, told CNBC.
There's also something about the Burning Man values that lends itself well to an effort like this, he said.
"Every year, we build a city for 80,000 in the desert, and it's all of the citizens themselves that create the systems and the protocols for the city," he said. "We tend to be group of people who know how to prototype social solutions."
Burners Without Borders, one of several global programs within Burning Man, started in 2005 after Burners helped rebuild communities in the south after Hurricane Katrina. Now, it has dozens of chapters, primarily in North America, Breedlove said. Its volunteers work on efforts spanning disaster relief, work with refugees, youth workshops and more.
The latest project is helping to provide protective supplies to where it's needed most.
Once the donation effort was underway, Garner said he and another friend started looking around online to see who else was trying to help. The found outside groups that were doing "exactly parallel efforts" He said the more than a dozen groups got on a Zoom call and decided to unite.
"We wanted the [personal protective equipment] to be given to hospitals but in an orderly fashion," he said. "You don't want 50 Burning Man people showing up at hospitals dropping things off."
Now, groups have united their data and efforts at GetUsPPE.org, where consumers can find nearby facilities in need of supplies and how to drop off. Hospitals and facilities can also request supplies they need. The site also has resources for makers and manufacturers to make supplies like face shields or masks.
Garner said a team of more than 300 people is working on the #GetUsPPE effort, including a marketing team and others calling hospitals.
"Everyone is working 12 to 14 hours a day on this," he said.
Garner said he's not sure about the quantities of supplies donated since hospitals don't report back what they received from donors.
The team is now working to get local networks of Burning Man community members to volunteer for local pickup and distribution. Garner said he's hoping that service will roll out in the U.S. within the week. Breedlove said that's especially important to get supplies to rural areas.
Garner said anyone can go to the GetUsPPE website, look up their state and see what's needed. There were 2,594 donation sites listed on the website as of Wednesday morning. A search around New York City showed more than 10 hospitals and what they needed. New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, for instance, showed that it was accepting N95 masks and provides an email address for interested parties to contact.
"The response has been sort of remarkable," Garner said. "So many people are wanting to help."