40 tons of medical supplies stuck in Chicago warehouse en route to India

Forty tons of donated medical supplies sit on 207 pallets in a Chicago warehouse. Photo courtesy of Bridges to Cures.

Last updated on August 18th, 2021 at 08:42 pm

About 40 tons of medical supplies donated to support COVID-19 relief efforts in India are stuck in a Chicago warehouse while a local nonprofit navigates red tape and a web of logistical roadblocks.

Bridges to Cures, a nonprofit that has partnered with Medical College of Wisconsin for the delivery, says the medical supplies with an estimated value of $1 million were donated by several local organizations including Froedtert Health.

Promising leads have surfaced as the nonprofit engaged with multiple philanthropists and organizations for regulatory guidance and financial support. However, the sheer size of the shipment and the complexity of regulations involved with sending medical supplies internationally has proven a logistical nightmare, said MCW professor Ramani Ramchandran.

“It changes minute to minute and day to day,” Ramchandran said of the logistical challenges. “We have to go after parallel tracks and it’s unclear which track is going to work. Each time a track appears to work, there is a new cost associated with that track.”

Meanwhile, respirators, gowns, N95 masks and a myriad of medical supplies packed on 207 pallets have sat idly in a Chicago warehouse for more than two months, a quandary that Bridges to Cures is now calling its “40-ton challenge.”

The effort, involving multiple organizations and a few local doctors, began in April as COVID-19 cases surged to more than 6.6 million in India, said Ramchandran, who is also Bridges to Cures’ secretary and chief sciences officer.

The initiative began when Ramchandran, a native of India, reached out to other MCW physicians of Indian origin to provide medical supplies to frontline workers in India. The group started with a much smaller batch of personal protective equipment, which was delivered to India via UPS, Ramchandran said. That shipment was held up by customs, but it eventually reached the Diganta Swaraj Foundation, an organization that educates and trains local leadership in social, economic and sustained development.

Once the shipment arrived in India, the foundation worked with tribal residents in their home state of Maharashtra to disperse the supplies and translate instructions on how to use the equipment properly.

As the work of Bridges to Cures gained traction, the organization connected with Balaji Narayanan, a senior engineer and process improvement leader at Froedtert Health. Narayanan helped secure the 40 tons of donated medical supplies and also helped the nonprofit navigate regulations and approvals required by U.S. and Indian government agencies, Ramchandran said.

When Bridges to Cures learned that government agencies would airlift the medical supplies to India free of charge, Narayanan connected with truckers who volunteered their time to transport the supplies to the Chicago warehouse, he said. Meanwhile, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of Southeastern Wisconsin has covered the cost of housing the supplies in the warehouse, Ramchandran added.

However, Bridges to Cures later discovered that the government agencies in India rescinded their offer to transport the medical supplies free of charge, which is why it remains trapped in a Chicago warehouse today.

“Initially, they had promised to airlift all of these pallets free of cost because, at the time, the need was so huge,” Ramchandran said. “They were willing to do anything and everything to get this out to India as soon as possible.”

Bridges to Cures has since prepared and packaged the medical supplies to meet regulatory requirements for shipment to India. The nonprofit has also connected with multiple logistics companies who have offered to either airlift or transport the medical supplies by boat for free. However, the 40 tons of medical supplies have to be transported to New Jersey first, Ramchandran said.

“It’s a matter of getting those pallets out of Chicago and to the East Coast,” Narayanan said. “I think that’s the final part we have to figure out of this whole puzzle where we keep adding pieces.”

The nonprofit is now raising the funds to transport the supplies to the East Coast, which could cost anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, said Daniel Sem, Bridges to Cures president and CEO. Although the medical supplies will not arrive in the timeframe that Bridges to Cures initially planned, Ramchandran believes there will continue to be a need for medical supplies as India combats COVID-19.

“When you think of all the variants popping up, I think COVID is going to be around for a long time,” Ramchandran said. “If we talk about herd immunity, it’s going to take an incredibly long to achieve that goal with the population that India has of around 1.2 billion.”

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