Atlantic Health System, Kent Place team up to make masks

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SUMMIT, NJ — As COVID-19 emerged throughout communities in New Jersey, a group of students dedicated to exploring ethical issues within society found the opportunity to put their learning into action, with the help of medical-ethics experts at Atlantic Health System.

When the health system, a longtime adviser to the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School in Summit, identified individuals in the intellectual and developmental disability community and their caregivers as a vulnerable population, the Kent Place students at the institute began an initiative that ultimately provided more than 400 homemade protective masks, 100 face shields, 1,000 surgical masks and 100 other protective masks to residents and caregivers in group homes, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes in seven northern New Jersey counties.

“This project allowed our students to live their values,” said Karen Rezach, founding director of the Ethics Institute and a member of the Ethics Committee at Overlook Medical Center. “Having a chance to make an impact meant the world to us.”

The project stemmed from an Atlantic Health System COVID-19 Ethics Oversight Committee discussion.

“We identified people in the IDD community, including people with Down syndrome, as a potentially vulnerable population,” said Yvette Vieira, manager of bioethics and palliative care at the health system.

Many IDD community members receive care from direct service providers in group homes or from family members at private homes.

“The expectation was for people in the IDD community to shelter in place if they got COVID-19, but the lack of PPE exposed them and their caregivers,” said Megan MacMullin, CEO of SCARC Guardianship, which provides guardian services to IDD community members in northern New Jersey.

To help, the task force turned to Kent Place School, which has partnered with Atlantic Health for more than a decade to teach ethics to its students. The task force connected Kent Place School with the health system’s Disability Clinic Physicians in Union Township.

On March 30, approximately 20 students from the school’s sports teams agreed to donate their time to sew protective masks. Task force member Lisa Goldman gathered donated materials from local vendors and drove them to students’ homes. She also picked up the completed personal protective equipment so it could be distributed to guardians and group homes by SCARC Guardianship and the New Jersey Bureau of Guardianship Services.

“I felt like an air traffic controller,” said Jeanne Kerwin, a consultant for bioethics and palliative care at Atlantic Health System, who coordinated the distribution.

Kent Place senior Adithi Jayaraman, 17, of Livingston, a swimmer at the school, was one of the first to volunteer to sew masks. “But she forgot to tell them we don’t have a sewing machine,” joked her mom, Sai Jayaraman, who ultimately decided to sew the masks by hand with her daughter. “It was a good bonding experience. It was our way of saying thank you to people you see on the news who are doing all they can to save lives.”

Kent Place junior Tanmayee Talla, 17, of Green Brook, took a different approach. She and her father, Sri, a local pharmacist with access to personal protective equipment, coordinated the donation of protective masks, 3D-printed face shields and surgical masks.

“Jeanne explained how people in the IDD community are sometimes overlooked, and it inspired me,” Tanmayee Talla said.

To Kerwin, the Kent Place students are the ones who deserve all the credit. “They are some of the many unspoken heroes of this pandemic.”