Leah Howard, brand manager of Cultivated Cocktails, shown holding small bottles of hand sanitizer. The company is now a partner of Dogwood Health Trust, which is serving as a clearinghouse for supplies needed by first responders, medical personnel and nonprofits. Photo courtesy of Cultivated Cocktails

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Dogwood Health Trust has reinvented itself in a way that most people wouldn’t have imagined a year ago.

Just 14 months after coming into being as a result of the HCA-Mission Health merger, the $1.5 billion Asheville-based foundation has transformed itself into a regional partner for COVID-19 testing as well as a clearinghouse for products desperately needed by first responders, health organizations and nonprofits in the growing fight against the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In its newfound role, Dogwood has carved out $10 million from its 2020 grants budget of $50 million to $60 million. That $10 million is largely being redeployed to acquire COVID-19 test kits, launch social-distancing campaigns and support businesses or entrepreneurs who can quickly scale up production of goods that are needed to combat the new coronavirus.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

In a one-two punch that began several weeks ago, Dogwood sought out sources of COVID-19 test kits to accelerate the pace of testing across Western North Carolina’s 18 counties and Qualla Boundary, the federally recognized land trust populated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Dogwood also devised a plan to serve as a middleman between manufacturers of products like personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer and the first responders, doctors, nurses and others who need them.

According to the foundation’s new webpage, www.covidwnc.org, Dogwood is looking for qualified companies and entrepreneurs that are interested in scaling up production of coronavirus-related supplies that Dogwood could then store and distribute.

Under the arrangements, Dogwood would take possession of 90% of the supply of a given item from a partner and coordinate its delivery in what it calls an “equitable and wise distribution of resources.”

Dogwood will assess the kinds and quantities of products that front-line responders need and will assist businesses with sourcing materials, provide capital to place large orders and help obtain equipment or hire workers, the online notice says.

Dogwood supports COVID-19 testing

For weeks, Dogwood representatives tracked down COVID-19 test kits available from private laboratories that could be placed in the hands of rural health departments.

With testing among Western North Carolina’s more than a million people lagging, the goal was to accelerate the pace so a larger number of people could either be ruled out as carriers, be encouraged to self-isolate or get referred to appropriate health providers.

Focusing on “contact tracing,” which identifies and tests people who have been in contact with a known infected individual, Dogwood has already gotten test kits into the hands of health departments in about half of the region’s counties and Qualla Boundary.

The exact sources and number of such highly coveted kits haven’t been disclosed by Dogwood, but they have been deployed rapidly.

In Cherokee and Clay counties, Dogwood’s kits were put to use in the first identified case of COVID-19 in the region, a visitor from New York who attended a dance at a folk school and had unknowingly infected others before going into isolation.

“Dogwood quickly sourced and deployed test kits, enabling us to set up contact trace testing within days of learning of the first positive case,” said David Badger, director of the Cherokee County Health Department, in a statement.

“This effort resulted in the Health Department being able to identify additional positive cases and continue further contact tracing as necessary.”

Dogwood has also been instrumental in getting testing into the hands of McDowell County residents.

On Thursday, Dogwood, along with Gateway Wellness Foundation and McDowell County Emergency Services, launched McDowell.ClearStep.Health, an online screening tool that combines symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to COVID-19.

“The hope behind purchasing ClearStep is that the screener can help proactively reduce the burden on an already overwhelmed health care system by encouraging testing for those most at risk and adherence to staying at home for those who may be less at risk but symptomatic,” said a statement from Antony Chiang, the CEO of Dogwood Health Trust.

Volume-driven manufacturing

In its quest to ramp up production of sorely needed items used by first responders and health care professionals, Dogwood is partnering with Cultivated Cocktails (formerly H&H Distillery) and Southeastern Container to produce and bottle hand sanitizer.

Asheville-based Cultivated Cocktails is helping to curb a shortage of hygiene products by using the ethanol produced for whiskey as a sanitizer ingredient. Southeastern Container makes the bottles.

Taylor Howard, the founder and co-owner of Cultivated Cocktails, said about 23,000 22-ounce bottles of sanitizer are being produced through late April for distribution by Dogwood.

Other businesses are also getting on board with Dogwood to produce needed goods.

Dogwood and partners target grant-making to fight COVID-19

While Dogwood has pivoted away from its original grant-making role in order to address COVID-19, that function is now being handled on a fast-track basis by the new Emergency and Disaster Response Fund created by The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in concert with Dogwood and several smaller foundations.

In its first two weekly grant announcements, the response fund awarded a total of $562,900 to 74 nonprofits.

Travis Smith, a grief counselor at Blue Ridge Hope, believes the telemedicine grant that the agency received will be put to good use.

“We have found that if telemedicine in terms of therapy is done with good visual contact via screen that it can be very effective,” Smith said.

“Since we have started using this, many clients who were accustomed to face to face have reported they are feeling very comfortable with telemedicine.

“Many of our clients have increased anxieties related to COVID-19, and we are helping those folks manage the stress from the safety of their homes.”

Dogwood will eventually return to its original grant-making role but not until the pandemic is under control, Chiang said.

Neil Cotiaux

Neil Cotiaux is a contributing writer for Carolina Public Press. He is based in Wilmington. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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