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COVID-19 response Serving our community

Outfitting the front line

Loyola University Chicago faculty are working nimbly—and outside of their expertise—to answer the global call for personal protective equipment

Did Neil Klingensmith expect to spend his spring in the shield-making business? Not a chance. An assistant professor in Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Computer Science, Klingensmith typically researches the Internet of Things, “like the Nest thermostat and these gizmos we have all over the place.” Is he handy? A little bit, sure. But he’s a software guy at heart, a coder at a monitor. Manufacturing is not his deal.

Like a lot of Chicagoans sheltering-in-place, though, Klingensmith found himself with extra time on his hands. “You’re sitting at home,” he says, “and you have to find something to do, right?” In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’d read about medical “hackathons,” in which do-it-yourselfers were finding novel ways to construct alternative pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers. Eventually, he scrolled over an article on the website of his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, highlighting a pair of engineers who were partnering with area companies to produce medical face shields, a critical piece of PPE for those treating coronavirus patients. The group helpfully published their design specs as open source, allowing others to download and start building their own impromptu gear. Klingensmith had access to Loyola’s computer science labs, which house comparable equipment. Plus his wife works in a North Side medical clinic, giving him an extra itch to pitch in. And so began Klingensmith’s quixotic PPE experiment.

To start, he needed to hunt down supplies. Finding flat plastic sheets and foam for brow guards wasn’t too tricky. Elastic proved more elusive. The world is rushing to refill its PPE stockpiles, and elastic has dried up. A series of cold-calls led him to Vogue Fabrics, an Evanston-based wholesaler and (as of March) medical interloper. “A lady in the warehouse said they’d been getting orders from all over the country. Ford Motor Company even called them up!” Klingensmith says. “I sense from their name that they are not in the business of supplying stuff for seatbelts, you know?”

Materials in hand, he constructed a couple of prototypes using scissors and an X-Acto knife. Then he jumped back online, in an effort to flag companies that could take his clear plastic rolls and, in bulk, mold them into the precise shape. The trick was to locate a plant with a plastics converter, a tool about which Klingensmith knew nothing. Chicago Plastic Systems, in nearby Crystal Lake, Illinois, had both the proper machine and the capacity. Colleagues at Loyola, meanwhile, offered to help him navigate the knotty issues of liability and distribution.

By the end of April, Loyola University Medical Center is set to receive 2,250 face shields, courtesy of Klingensmith. The first batch already shipped, and production will ramp up this week. In this chaotic time, when medical supply chains are choked, lives could very well be saved because of Klingensmith’s hustling. The Internet of Things can sit on the back-burner for the time-being.

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In pockets across the University, volunteer entrepreneurs like Klingensmith are working nimbly—and outside of their expertise—to answer the global call for PPE. There are people like Carolyn Tang Kmet, a senior lecturer at the Quinlan School of Business, who is organizing a grassroots effort to support hospitals and senior care facilities in need of non-N95 face masks. Through crafty generosity of alumni and clever Facebook messaging, Kmet will soon distribute over 1,000 hand-sewn masks in Chicagoland, with potentially more to follow. Truckloads of additional donations (gloves, gowns) have poured in from the Wellness Center and other departments —Biology, Chemistry, the Institute for Environmental Sustainability—with unused inventory. Ramblers are opening their cabinets, their wallets, and their hearts with little hesitation.

Harry Haney’s PPE journey started when his boss, John Caltagirone, received a note from two alums—Sam Mulroe and Mark Mulroe—a little over two weeks ago: did Quinlan have a line on masks or gowns? Haney is the director of the Supply and Value Chain Center, a member of the Loyola Business Leadership Hub; he’s a specialist in the supply chain challenges of an increasingly globalized economy. (Caltagirone serves as executive director.) Nearly a dozen Quinlan alumni (including Mulroe) now work for UChicago Medicine, where they manage the flow of PPE for a health care system that employs some 12,000 people. And they needed any assistance they could get.

Haney and Caltagirone prepared and posted a LinkedIn message and sent a detailed email blast to the Hub’s listserv. The situation appeared dire—the least they could do was ask. Responses of all stripes flooded his inbox, from companies that have collaborated with the Hub in the past or from referrals who caught wind of the urgent request. There were 30 potential sources in short order, large companies like Honeywell and McMaster-Carr along with individuals who had stock to contribute. Haney acted as “a conduit of information,” connecting the willing donors with strapped administrators at UCM and LUCM. A partnership with World Business Chicago netted the biggest cache; together with Chicago Sister Cities International, the association joined forces with officials in Shanghai, who airmailed 21,200 N95 and KN95 masks across the Pacific Ocean to Chicago. Forty-four cartons arrived late last week, and will be shared between four area hospital systems.

Watching the PPE shortage play out in real-time has been instructive for Haney. “I hope that companies will start to look more closely at the risk management and resilience of their supply chains,” he says. “Coming out of this, there will be lots of ‘lessons learned’ so that, as a country, we are better prepared for future pandemics.” 

The generosity he’s witnessed, both big and small, has left a lasting impression on Haney, too, demonstrating “the humanity underneath all of this.” Take his exchange with Jennifer Lucas, a part-time instructor at the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. Lucas was looking to find a home for extra masks she’d bought at Menard’s along with some gloves; she’d prefer to pitch in more, but the coffee and tea business she runs with her husband—Paname Coffee & Tea Importers—was struggling under the strain of shelter-in-place. They’d already pledged to donate any unsold coffee with an expiring “best by” date to health care teams. Each had developed their taste for the bean studying at the John Felice Rome Center, 20 years ago.

“People who are in really dire straits right now, they are thinking about others,” Haney says. “To me, that’s the Loyola spirit.” 

Our compassionate response

In the unprecedented upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Loyola has responded with care, compassion, and concern for the well-being and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. Visit our coronavirus response site to learn more about our efforts and the latest updates on our university.