Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Kentucky campuses help health care workers cope with shortages in protective gear

April 02, 2020

This article is part of the Council's COVID-19 on Campus series.

Within the second week of production, requests were pouring in from across the country – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Oklahoma. Ed Tackett knew his team at the University of Louisville (UofL) had to scale up fast.

"I have four shifts running down here, all staffed by undergraduate volunteers," said Tackett, director of workforce development at the Additive Manufacturing Institute of Science and Technology (AMIST), part of the Speed School of Engineering at UofL.

"I have 12 printers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.

The effort is one of many on Kentucky campuses to help shore up the supply of face shields, respirators and other protective gear as health care providers wrestle with the growing pandemic of COVID-19.

Over the past two weeks, universities and colleges have donated thousands of items of gear from science labs, medical programs and athletic departments while also harnessing 3D printers to manufacture items in short supply.

That's the case at AMIST, which by Monday, had shipped more than 1,000 face shields and had fielded requests for another 7,500 units.

Tackett said his team is hard pressed just to meet demand in Kentucky, but he has enlisted help from other schools and universities along with private citizens who have access to 3D printers.

"We built a whole infrastructure around this," he said.

Nearly 200 miles away at Ashland Community and Technical College, Chris Boggs, project coordinator for new and expanding business and industry, and Tyler Stevens, coordinator for the Computer Aided Drafting and Design program, have set up a similar operation in the college's 3D printing lab.

Boggs said they received a request for face shields from the local hospital and were able to deliver just under 100 units within a week. Requests soon surged from other health care workers, nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Now the pair are looking to add shifts and expand production to include respirator-style masks.

"It's just the right thing to do if you can help your fellow man, if you can help your neighbor," Boggs said. "This is really our family out there on the front lines trying to battle this."

Dr. Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said such community partnerships have always played a crucial role in higher education, but COVID-19 has added new urgency.

"Campuses are mobilizing with incredible speed," he said. "These are concrete examples of our commitment to the common good, but they also demonstrate the power of higher education as an engine for knowledge, innovation and resources."

Thompson said flexibility and the community mentality are key to overcoming the current crisis.

As students transition to online learning, campuses have also seized opportunities to round up and donate unused gear.

Eastern Kentucky University, for instance, has donated more than 55,000 pairs of gloves, 679 gowns and 2,400 surgical masks to local health care workers and first responders.

At the University of Pikeville, the colleges for nursing and medicine have both tapped their teaching stockpiles, lending out thermometers and sending out boxes of gloves, masks, gowns and shoe covers.

"We had in our storage rooms literally cases of examination gloves," said Dr. Dana Shaffer, dean of UPIKE's College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Some colleges are also employing more traditional methods to produce protective equipment.

Matthew Hallock, professor of dramatic arts and chair of the Dramatic Arts Program at Centre College, said faculty and staff have been using dormant materials from the costume shop to sew together reusable masks for the local hospital. They expect to have up to 250 masks by the end of the week.

Hallock said the effort to sew masks was already underway in Boyle County, and the college wanted to add support.

"We are members of the community first and foremost," he said. "The employees of the college – faculty and staff and anyone else – many of them live right here in town. It isn't so much that we are helping the community, we are helping our community."

Tackett, Boggs and Hallock have all consulted with medical professionals on designing the gear.

Boggs said the effort has shown how 3D printing and additive manufacturing are an important part of the new production model. He said local residents have often regarded 3D printing as limited to trinkets and decorations.

At UofL, Tackett said one big benefit has been teaching students about business and production flow.

"My engineering students here have learned how production works, and all the things you have to take into account," he said. "You have incoming supply lines, outgoing supply lines and all the secondary processes. In a situation like this, you actually have to set up a small company… in three days."

Last Updated: 7/23/2021