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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Direct Relief's Thomas Tighe Talks PPE, Supply Chains, Tests: "Simultaneous Emergency Everywhere"

For Thomas Tighe, the first sign of the unprecedented scope of the coronavirus pandemic came in the third week of January, when the director of the Wuhan Union Hospital, located at the epicenter of the first outbreak, contacted Direct Relief to ask for help.

The longtime CEO of the celebrated, humanitarian medical assistance non-profit based in Santa Barbara, Tighe was accustomed to purchasing supplies from China, for the stockpiles of equipment and medications the group routinely ships to health care facilities, natural disasters and urgent situations throughout the U.S. and around the world. Receiving a call for assistance from China, however, was surprising.

"That was completely unexpected," Tighe said in a Newsmakers interview. "We do our best to forecast how the year's going to look -- and helping in China was not part of it at all."

"'We're not sure we're going to be able to do it because China is not really welcoming of foreign assistance,'" he recalled saying at first, before agreeing to send several charter flights worth of desperately-needed supplies to the embattled hospital.

"We were happy to help, but as the event unfolded, and the size grew, we told them 'we need to reserve the remainders of our supplies (because) we have other obligations here in the states," Tighe added. "'We're buying material from China, so you have the resources to put at this problem.' And so we backed off, probably by mid-February (and) then were really trying to get positioned to deal with what has happened, what would be we do when the virus arrived in the United States."

Tighe's insight and information about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the urgent work Direct Relief has performed under unstinting demands from around the globe for medical equipment and medications, offers a unique perspective on the fight against a deadly virus that is active in virtually country in the world, and against which humans are immunologically illiterate.

From his office in the group's huge, 155,000 square foot warehouse in Goleta, he described for us how Direct Relief has been busier than ever before, sending Personal Protective Gear (PPE) to health care workers and medical facilities treating patients afflicted by Covid-19 -- 1,344 deliveries to 1,227 institutions in 33 countries of 3.3 million masks, 2.8 million pairs of gloves and 105,000 protective gowns, for starters.

Tighe also offered his analysis of why major shortages have hampered the U.S. response, his expectations about the future availability of testing and his concern about the potential catastrophic impacts when the virus hammers the Southern Hemisphere.

":Most emergencies that we end up dealing with are geographically distinct. so you have a Hurricane Maria or Hurricane Harvey, where there's a huge need, because of an event, for an infusion of resources. Usually you can mobilize resources from other places and bring them to bear on where the problem is," he said.

"So among the challenges in this situation is that it's a simultaneous emergency everywhere," Tighe added. "So this about as bad as it gets."

Watch the full interview with Thomas Tighe by clicking below. The podcast version is here.


Image: Thomas Tighe, Nov. 2019 (

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