You may have seen the purple-and-white tent making the rounds since spring.

Novant Health has been distributing free facemasks, often targeting communities that need them most, to help control the spread of COVID-19. In fact, Novant Health has committed to distributing 400,000 masks to the communities it serves. (See below for schedules.) 

Not every member of our community faces the same level of risk for COVID-19.  Approximately 1 in 3 Americans cannot work from home. Typically, these are the essential job roles that have more contact with the general public. 

In spite of the fact that these jobs are vital for our community, they are frequently lower income jobs that come with less benefits and security, such as sanitation workers, child care providers, hospitality and retail employees. African Americans make up a large proportion of these essential workers, who are heroes on the front lines.

Heather Foster, manager for Novant Health community engagement in Winston-Salem, said her team works closely with community organizations for maximum effectiveness. “A lot of the sites, when we look at them, we want to know where the underserved and most vulnerable populations are and who needs us most,” she said.

“Novant Health is everywhere,” said Jim Bailey, president and CEO of Red Moon Marketing, Novant Health’s partner in scheduling and staging the events. “These events are targeted specifically to neighborhoods in need but the overall scope is huge.” 

'We are always ready'

The events are more than an opportunity to give out masks. It’s an opportunity for education. “We talk about the proper way to wear a mask,” Bailey said.  

No matter how slammed a mask giveaway event is, the staff has never run out. That’s because Phillip Manning, a community outreach specialist for Novant Health, won’t allow it. He’s attended every single event in the Charlotte area and has had a hand in giving out the 122,000 masks (and counting) to anyone who needs one.

“When we load the truck, I make sure we have between 6,000 to 10,000 masks on hand,” he said.  “We are always ready.” 

Most people who come to these events – which are equipped to serve people who want to drive through or walk up – understand how crucial masks are. Occasionally, though, Manning will encounter a skeptic.

One recent reticent customer said: “I can’t wear a mask. My ears are too small.” 

Manning morphs into a salesman on the spot. He asks, “What about your family?” He’s hoping the doubter will reconsider and take enough masks for everyone in his household – including one for himself, in case he changes his mind. (The general rule is one mask per family member, but if anyone asks for extra, the team obliges.) 

People are always appreciative, Manning said. “They are delighted and so grateful. They tell us they’re thankful somebody is looking out for them.”

At the June 21 event at Dorothy Doores Waddy Pavilion at Clanton Park in Charlotte, Amanda Wallace was one such customer. She drove through and picked up four aubergine Novant Health masks – one for each person in her household. “I already called my mom, so she’ll be coming shortly,” she said. “Have a blessed day,” she told the team as she drove away.

Wallace didn’t need to be educated on the importance of masks; she was already wearing one and said she and her family have been hunkered down at home as much as they can since March. But a number of people who come to these events are getting a mask for the first time.   

The team has also taken the tent to COVID-19 testing sites, which are always busy. They recently gave out thousands in a single day at Mecklenburg County’s Valerie C. Woodard Center on Freedom Drive.

The team occasionally encounters someone who’s picking up a mask because they tested positive for COVID-19. “We meet people who are worried and under emotional stress,” Bailey said. “They can’t see us smile from behind our masks, but they know Novant Health cares. And they’re grateful.”

Vennie Patterson, a neighborhood engagement partner for Novant Health, adds: “This isn’t over. We cannot stand down in our push to make sure everyone is protected. A lot of us are ready to get out and get back to life. The only way to do that safely is to keep social distancing, wash your hands often and wear a mask.”