David Herraez Calzada/Shutterstock
David Herraez Calzada/Shutterstock

It takes guts to report for a hospital shift these days. Frontline health workers face the physical and emotional tolls of treating high-risk patients while exposing themselves—and by extension their own families—to a deadly disease.

Care protocols demand face-to-face patient proximity, despite personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. By the end of April, nearly nine in 10 nurses surveyed said they feared going to work due to lack of protection. Thousands are testing positive, accounting for up to two in 10 coronavirus cases in the United States. And evidence shows a mounting number of lost lives.

The heroism of these workers has not been lost on the public, whose rush to thank them has entire cities pausing to clap and cheer at designated hours. Blue Angels are doing flyovers, organizations like Frontline Foods are working to deliver safe meals to workers in 57 cities, and companies are contributing in-kind donations, like Nike donating thousands of shoes.

For its part, philanthropy is taking a number of approaches to meet both acute and long-term needs of the people who are working directly in harm’s way.

An early, critical strategy has been providing PPE through cash and in-kind support. As photos of nurses wearing garbage bags started showing up on our screens, some corporations emptied their stockpiles and gave millions toward shielding the front line. Goldman Sachs donated 600,000 N95 face masks procured in the wake of previous epidemics. AstraZeneca donated 3 million surgical masks. And Apple mobilized its supply chain, employees, and partners to source more than 20 million face masks, then went a step further by designing, producing and supplying face shields.

Aflac donated $3 million to Direct Relief to coordinate the delivery of PPE in all 50 states. Since January 24, when Direct Relief sent its first shipment of PPE to Seattle, the organization has delivered nearly 4 million masks, 3 million gloves and 100,000 gowns globally.

Beyond these immediate needs, funders are also backing long-term support systems to help workers prioritize their own health and resilience, supplementing the safety net for those at risk. For example, long before the pandemic reared its angry head, Johnson & Johnson made supporting frontline health workers its top priority—a practice dating back before 1918, when it introduced masks to limit the spread of the 1918 H1N1 flu outbreak.

In January, the company and its foundation invested $250 million over 10 years to found a Center for Health Worker Innovation that recognized, in part, the critical role health workers play in responding to pandemics. The virtual center rolled out five initial priorities: ensuring respect and recognition, providing education and training, expanding leadership opportunities, building resilience and personal well-being, and easing connections between workers, systems and communities. Within a decade, the center expects to support 1 million nurses, midwives and community health workers, bridging the gap on the WHO’s projected shortage of 18 million frontline health workers around the globe.

When the coronavirus hit, J&J committed an additional $50 million to specifically support doctors, nurses, midwives, community health workers and other frontline workers fighting COVID-19 globally. Initial investments include support for the American Nurses Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American Nurses Association; the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, the CDC Foundation’s All of Us Campaign, and Dimagi, a leading provider of mobile technology for frontline health workers.

They’re also backing #FirstRespondersFirst, an initiative conceived by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Thrive Global and the CAA Foundation, to support frontline workers through levers like child care, accommodations, food and counseling.

With a $1.5 million grant, Johnson & Johnson helped kick-start the American Nurses Foundation’s national Coronavirus Response Fund for Nurses, which allows the public to support nurses in meaningful ways. That includes direct cash assistance through its partner Nurses House, mental health resources, science-based self-protection education, and national advocacy work. Along with online giving, the fund established a text-to-give campaign that lets donors choose from options between $10 and $50 by texting THANKS to 20222.

The fund is also attracting significant institutional support. The Rite Aid Foundation contributed a half-million dollars as part of its total $1.5 million investment in supporting frontline healthcare providers, first responders and their families. The Allstate Foundation announced a $500,000 commitment to the fund on May 6, National Nurses Day, to honor their “heroic service.” And the Humana Foundation, Allstate Foundation, United Health Foundation, and the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation all answered the call.

The Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation, a leading funder in nursing education and research, has worked for decades to fulfill its mission to “improve the lives of patients, families and communities through nursing-driven innovation.” Executive Director Ahrin Mishan feels that nurses have an essential role to play in the recovery, saying, “Making sure nurses are well supported through public policy and philanthropy is central to restoring the health of our nation and the world.”

Prominent nursing funders Bill and Joanne Conway aimed their support at preparedness, pledging an additional $20 million to speed the construction of a new nursing and sciences building on the Catholic University campus. Conway says doubling their total project commitment was influenced by the coronavirus. “Given everything that is going on in our world—especially with the COVID-19 pandemic—we will need as many well-trained, compassionate health care professionals as we can get.”

The United Health Foundation also stepped up, committing $5 million to helping those on the “leading edge of this pandemic.” That includes a $2 million partnership with the CDC Foundation to meet PPE urgent needs; $2 million to Direct Relief to provide PPE and supplies to workers in community health centers and free and mobile clinics; and $1 million to the American Nurses Foundation Coronavirus Response Fund to build a virtual support system for nurses.

Dr. Richard Migliori, UnitedHealth Group’s chief medical officer, commended its partners for ensuring that “we are caring for those who care for us by meeting the clinical, emotional and mental health needs of these frontline heroes.”

Notably, a number of funders joined forces to support health workers.

Mastercard and the PepsiCo Foundation, both based outside New York City, launched Westchester Strong with Healthcare Heroes, a two-year, $1 million fund to support their hometown hospital’s frontline workers. As needs evolve, the initial focus on PPE and supplies is expected to shift to increasing capacity at White Plains Hospital and supporting the overall well-being of frontline staff.

It’s too soon to know the full human toll on those working in healthcare fields right now. But when worse comes to worst, the foundations of two leading insurers are working together to help.

In late April, the New York Life and Cigna foundations launched the Brave of Heart Fund, which provides charitable relief grants to support the families of workers who lose their lives to the pandemic. That includes the survivors of doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies, cafeteria workers, custodians and volunteers involved in COVID-19 patient care.

Recipients will receive initial cash grants to cover immediate expenses and health costs, and may be eligible to receive an additional $60,000 in recovery support. Besides monetary funding, Cigna behavioral health advocates stand ready to provide emotional support and services.

Both foundations made initial contributions of $25 million, with the goal of growing the fund to $100 million or more through individual and institutional donors. The New York Life Foundation helped jump start the fundraising with a dollar-for-dollar match on individual donations. In only a few weeks, it raised $6.6 million. The fund is being administrated by the Charlotte-based nonprofit E4E Relief, which expects to issue the first grants in May.

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