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Faculty, students with Chinese ties bring much-needed surgical masks to area

Surgical masks are essential for protecting health workers and preventing contracting the coronavirus.

A chat room conversation between colleagues at Western Carolina University with ties to China led to fast action that is putting surgical masks into the hands of front-line health workers in the region's smaller care facilities.

Yue Cai Hillon, professor of management at WCU, said the effort began with the simple, but oft-repeated question of "what can we do?"

"After speaking with some local clinics, assisted living and care facilities, and with workers themselves, we realized our local community has very limited personal protection equipment to prepare for a potential need with the COVID-19 outbreak," said Hillon. "Taking time to fundraise and then purchase the necessary items would prove too time-consuming. So, together with some colleagues across campus, using our own capabilities, we went ahead and made a purchase."

The masks will be distributed in collaboration between the American Chinese Friendship Society of Western North Carolina and the Western Carolina Medical Society, a nonprofit group based in Asheville.

The New York Times reported on Friday, March 27, that as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masks for the health workers and caregivers who must interact with infected individuals on a regular basis.

Health workers wear masks because they interact with sick patients regularly and often have to lean close for important medical procedures, exposing themselves to higher amounts of viral particles.

Yue Hillon (center)

It was truly a team effort, Hillon said. HongYun Shen, a WCU College of Business accounting student and spouse of Kong Chen, WCU's Coulter Faculty Commons staff, and Yanjun Yan, an associate professor in WCU's School of Engineering and Technology, located a surgical mask distributor in China, made contact and secured a shipment of 6,000 masks, with Hillon and Yiqing Yang, an assistant professor in WCU’s Anthropology and Sociology Department, securing the necessary funds.

“Our current-day super heroes are our medical professionals and emergency first responders and these personal protective equipment resources can help support and empower them to do what they are the best in the world at doing – saving lives," said Lane Perry, executive director of WCU's Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, which is assisting with communications and distribution.

“Faculty like Yue Hillon, Will Lehman, Yanjun Yan, Yiqing Yang and others are exemplars in putting their time, treasure and talent to great use. With connections to personal protection equipment manufacturers and a network that is both deep and wide, these faculty members, in partnership with the American Chinese Friendship Society of WNC, were able to mobilize, fundraise and begin distribution rapidly," Perry said. "These much-needed surgical masks will serve as an extra protective barrier in our community battle against COVID-19.”

For more information and to find out how to contribute, contact Hillon at

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