Newswise — As hospitals across the country try to manage a surge in coronavirus patients while also facing a global shortage in the protective gear needed to treat them, the Cornell community has banded together to donate crucial medical supplies to local health care providers.

“We have a lot of people working on the entire university effort,” said Frank Cantone, director of Cornell’s Office of Emergency Management, who has served as point person for the collection. “It’s easy to focus on a lot of the negatives of what’s happening, but in true fashion, we’ve got a lot of campus community members who are pulling together, even in very frustrating, scary and uncertain times.”

Faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students, university staff – everyone has stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cantone said.

The push to collect supplies began March 16 when Deputy Provost John Siliciano emailed college deans to ask if any of their research labs had extra viral specimen swabs or personal protective equipment (PPE) that could be sent to Cayuga Medical Center.

The response was immediate. Departments and units from almost every college echoed the call and began coordinating efforts to gather the supplies. Research facilities across campus turned into impromptu staging areas for collection. The College of Veterinary Medicine alone donated 900 N95 respirators to CMC, as well as swabs for sample testing, and is looking into providing animal ventilators that can also be used for humans. Even groups not directly linked to technical or medical research, like MBA students in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, took up the call.

So far, the Tompkins County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and its campus partners have collected more than 2,500 N95 respirators, many of which have been delivered to Cayuga Medical Center and the Tompkins County Health Department, Cantone said, as well as tens of thousands of gloves, procedure masks, surgical gowns and face shields. 

Cantone is working directly with the EOC, which is facilitating all supply requests from health care providers in the community – from physicians’ offices to first- response agencies such as fire departments and ambulance services – in addition to the county health department and hospital. The effort has now extended beyond the county line, with boxes of additional supplies loaded onto the Campus-to-Campus bus on Monday, bound for Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Well-suited support

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused Cornell labs to pause their research, this hiatus has also freed up supplies. And many researchers have found themselves particularly well suited to pitch in. 

Huiju Park, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design, specializes in researching chemical and biohazard protective clothing. His projects include developing a lightweight, effective cooling technology for protective garments worn by health care workers fighting Ebola, for improved comfort and safety, and he has evaluated the design of hazmat suits used for military applications and greenhouse workers.

When Park learned about the local need for exactly these sorts of supplies, he quickly checked with his Ph.D. students to make sure any donations would not immediately impact their research projects.

“Everybody was very ready and willing to donate this very valuable resource for the health care providers in town,” Park said.

His lab donated 10 disposable biohazard ensembles – essentially head-to-toe coveralls – and three high-quality, reusable hazmat suits. Park made sure to include specific washing instructions to mitigate the contamination that can occur when the suits are removed.

“I understand how uncomfortable it is going to be working in this kind of situation inside chemical biohazard protective clothing,” Park said. “Considering the effort and sacrifice of health care providers working in the front lines of this battle against the coronavirus outbreak, my donation is just a small thing. But I’m glad I could help them with the resource I have as a Cornell faculty member.”

Another faculty member, Ankur Singh, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, donated 500 surgical masks, N95 respirators and other biomedical supplies that he had originally obtained for researching the H1N1 virus and cancer. 

Faculty members aren’t the only ones contributing. Students in the College of Engineering’s Student Project Teams were adamant about donating 300 of their N95 respirators, plus assorted nitrile gloves and disposable coveralls, as they closed down their fabrication spaces in the basement of Upson Hall last week. The students often use various PPE items while working in multidisciplinary groups to engineer solutions to technical challenges, and were already primed for tackling this sort of real-world problem, according to Lauren Stulgis, the Swanson Director of Student Project Teams.

“Their level of dedication and commitment is really impressive,” Stulgis said. “Their initial reaction wasn’t about how the shutdown impacted them personally, but rather to think about what they could do that’s helpful in this situation. To me, it felt very selfless. They’re all stressed out and overwhelmed, their whole world is upended, and yet they have the presence of mind to think, ‘Okay, this is massively disappointing and painful, but what good can come out of it?’”

Working with the facilities staff in Upson Hall and a chain of graduate students, faculty members and Cantone’s team, the students arranged to get their supplies delivered to the Tompkins County Health Department.

“I’m glad that we can put these supplies to good use,” Stulgis said. “Every little bit helps. But I wish we had more left to give them.”

This collaborative spirit has been shared across campus all week, according to Cantone. Cornell’s incident management team has served as a nerve center, of sorts, with campus representatives in health services, facilities, law enforcement, IT, communication, crisis support and personnel management all meeting almost every day to prepare for maintaining operations and ensuring safety throughout the university.

“Our campus partners and stakeholders have been very generous in donating time and resources to gather these supplies,” Cantone said. “It’s been a fantastic journey with our colleagues on the management team to see how everybody has been stepping up, making a lot of sacrifices, putting in many, many long hours. This is really putting us to the test of what we train and exercise for during the year. It has been a very impressive effort by a lot of people. It’s something that we’re all committed to.”