UCSF Team of Scientists Produces, Distributes Hand Sanitizer for Bay Area's Incarcerated, Most Vulnerable Populations

By Scott Maier

Many bottles of hand sanitizer on a table

The UCSF group plans to make and distribute 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. Photo credit: Amir Aziz

It’s been repeated continuously as one of the first preventive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic: wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. But what if soap and water aren’t readily available?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an effective alternative, and the Science Policy Group at UCSF (SPG) has initiated a project to provide sanitizer to incarcerated populations, as well as people living in public or transitional housing or experiencing homelessness. The group launched a GoFundMe campaign on April 12, 2020, to procure supplies, manufacture and distribute the sanitizer and also received funding from the California Wellness Foundation and San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America for the initial phase.

While some correctional facilities have reduced their inmate population, COVID-19 outbreaks continue to be of growing concern. As social distancing is not an option, inmates must rely on secondary measures like hand sanitizer use to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Elina Kostyanovskaya, a graduate student in developmental and stem cell biology at UCSF and an SPG leader, was especially concerned by the humanitarian and public health crisis associated with a potential COVID-19 outbreak among incarcerated people. In response, she and other SPG members have manufactured hand sanitizer in accordance with World Health Organization protocol. The group not only manufactures but also bottles, labels, affixes education pamphlets and distributes.

“People tend to dehumanize people who are incarcerated, so the focus, for the most part, has not really been on serving these communities,” Kostyanovskaya said. “But jails and prisons are actually a relatively unique congregate setting in that not only are people unable to socially distance but these facilities also are not closed systems. You have hundreds or thousands of staff moving in and out of them every day, and any one of them could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19. As we’ve already seen around the country, outbreaks in jails spread quickly, can be deadly and have the potential to overload nearby hospitals.”

The SPG has manufactured and delivered 30 gallons of hand sanitizer refills to more than 900 inmates at the San Francisco County Jail and will continue refilling the jail until the pandemic ends. The group also produced and distributed 4,000 four-ounce bottles (125 gallons) of sanitizer to San Quentin State Prison and 1,000 bottles (31.25 gallons) to San Mateo County jails this week.

Because SPG is committed to serving undeserved communities in congregate settings, members manufactured and distributed 612 bottles to Sunnydale and Oakdale housing projects, as well as San Francisco-Marin food bank at Bessie Carmichael Elementary School.

The next batch of 5,688 bottles of hand sanitizer should be distributed in the next week to 4,000 people incarcerated in two jails in Bay Area counties, the remaining public housing complexes and shelters. In partnership with actor ("Last Black Man in San Francisco") and community organizer Jamal Trulove, the group will continue to supply sanitizer and educational materials to historically underserved public housing complexes.

Overall, the group will manufacture and distribute about 15,000 bottles (500 gallons) in the next two weeks.

“Hand sanitizer and information are both powerful tools to help at-risk communities stop the spread of COVID-19,” Kostyanovskaya said. “As scientists, we have the ability to provide both. In the midst of a pandemic and uneven resource distribution, we have to provide both. We all do what we can.”

About UCSF: The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF's primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.