Student Initiative Delivers Thousands of Masks to Healthcare Workers

Jun 05 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mask Up
Portrait image of Arya Rao (left) and Kanav Kalucha (right)

Arya Rao and Kanav Kalucha launched Mask Up, an initiative delivering crowd-sourced masks to institutions in short supply.

As COVID-19 struck, and Columbians were forced to finish their semesters from afar, a pair of public-spirited undergraduates teamed up to provide desperately-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to doctors and nurses nationwide. Biochemist Arya Rao ’22CC and computer scientist Kanav Kalucha ’23 launched an initiative, Mask Up, delivering crowd-sourced masks from volunteer makers to institutions in short supply.

“I’m originally from Big Rapids, a small town in northern Michigan,” Rao says. “When campus closed and I came home, my mother—a physician—mentioned that the CDC is recommending people use homemade masks due to a lack of protective equipment, particularly in rural areas like ours, and that local crafters had started sending her masks. It was then I realized that a centralized platform could be incredibly useful for linking people sewing masks at home with healthcare facilities in need.”

With Kalucha, her colleague from the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal, Rao explored the distribution of PPE throughout the United States to determine how best to leverage and streamline existing grassroots efforts. Then, they started matching volunteers with hospitals and practitioners in their home states.

Multicolor masks on a table.

The crowd-sourced masks are homemade by volunteers.

Without proper research, unfortunately, homemade masks can go to waste. Different organizations may need different designs, so it’s important to find out exactly what’s needed.

Kanav Kalucha ’23

“Without proper research, unfortunately, homemade masks can go to waste,” said Kalucha, currently back home in Fremont, California. “Different organizations may need different designs, so it’s important to find out exactly what’s needed.”

So far, Mask Up has sent well over 5,000 masks to more than 100 hospitals, with almost 200 people, including Columbia students and faculty, sewing masks that have landed all across the country.

“Mask material and fit are generally most important, and non-porous fabrics like cotton are great,” said Rao, also an officer with Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, a diverse group of scientists and engineers confronting the pandemic in various ways. “Research has shown well-fitting cloth masks are nearly as effective as surgical masks.”

Looking ahead, the team expects that social distancing and PPE will remain crucial to keeping the coronavirus under control as the country reopens, and to minimizing a resurgence later in the year.

“Especially given the looming threat of a second wave, masks should become increasingly normalized,” Kalucha said.