Innovative thinking and ideas know no limits in the Rocket City, famous for finding solutions to complex problems and managing complicated situations.
The list of needs from the hospitals as they ramp up preparations for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases include surgical and procedural masks, N95 masks, isolation gowns, gloves, face shields, face goggles, ventilators, and swabs. However, it is the “other things” category that breathes life into Huntsville’s smartest minds during this unprecedented medical crisis.
Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center are, of course, at the heart of these efforts. The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce has taken unprecedented steps to coordinate small business and manufacturing efforts to provide additional equipment and supplies to health care providers throughout the community, in the event our area gets overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
From the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Madison County companies and manufacturers large and small have been participating in these efforts, some adjusting their operations, while others are adapting to needs as they arise, and donating goods and services.
Lucia Cape, senior vice president of Economic Development at the Chamber, is spearheading the manufacturing efforts, maintaining an ongoing list of needed items and locations where businesses can drop off those donations, including the Chamber office on Church Street downtown.
“The manufacturing of these supplies, whether it is something you already manufacture, or something you can modify, the Chamber is running that information down and giving it to Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood to help them coordinate it,” Cape said. “Both hospitals are getting overwhelmed right now with the medical aspects of COVID-19 and this helps keep things in the proper channels.”
The Chamber holds regular calls with manufacturers to get clarification about what items can and can’t be made outside and over their existing supply chain or existing distributor base; and what the procedures are for getting a design approved.
Many of the requests are in reference to face shields, but Cape said several companies responded, offering anything from machine tooling shops that can make metal parts for ventilation carts and shelves, to 3D printers, and shops which specialize in custom injection moldings that can make pretty much anything.
And anything can mean taking on unexpected problems.
One of the things that has arisen from the making of N95 masks, for instance, is that prolonged wearing of the masks has shown to cause some skin breakdown on the bridge of the nose of clinical staff. There may be an opportunity for a device that could cushion the nose and prevent that from happening.
Cape said it is things like that that create unexpected opportunities that might not be on an original list of needs, but for which the Chamber is happy to be a clearinghouse.
“If you have things to sell, donate or have some great ideas, bring them to the Chamber so we can make sure they pass through the right channels and we will connect you directly,” Cape said.
Also, if the hospitals reach a point in which they don’t need some of these items any longer, the Chamber is setting up distribution throughout the community to doctor’s offices and clinics inside and outside our community to help.
Other creative ideas consist of converting CPAPs into ventilators; using plexiglass to make intubation domes; and making ventilator helmets based on a design from a company in Texas that looks like a space suit helmet. One manufacturer on a teleconference call with the Chamber hinted that surely someone in Huntsville can make that.
A couple of companies are assessing whether local doctors and respiratory therapists would embrace that kind of therapy if it were available.
Yet another company is tooling up a sanitization assembly line at Lincoln Mill that can bleach manufacturing parts intended to go into the supply chain.
Another company has offered to repair broken or failing electronic, plastic, or metal equipment.
Companies are also looking at ways to be more efficient, for instance, cutting the filtration material used for making N95 masks differently, and basically getting four masks out of what was originally one.
“We just want to make sure before anyone goes down that track that it is something the hospitals can accept, made by someone from outside the supply chain,” said a spokesperson for the company.
A representative from Huntsville Hospital said he thinks the FDA has waived some of the rules during this pandemic and if they begin running low on anything at some point, emergency authorizations they have already received, give them clear guidance that if reasonable health care professionals and doctors agree these ideas are an acceptable way to do it, then it will be okay.
Many large companies have stepped up to the plate as well.
PPG, which employs 700 people in Huntsville, announced it will donate 50,000 surgical masks and 10,000 N95 masks to several hospitals in the United States including Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.
“PPG is proud to support the medical community as they courageously continue their work on the frontlines of this global pandemic,” said Michael H. McGarry, PPG chairman and chief executive officer. “As One PPG family, we will continue to work with our community partners to provide support and deploy resources wherever possible. We look forward to a brighter future, together.”
Several local companies have donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to help hospitals and medical workers stock up on supplies. Adtran, Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATI, Brown Precision, Bruderer, Dynetics, Facebook, HudsonAlpha, Huntsville Utilities, John Blue Company, Matcor-Matsu, Mazda, Toyota Manufacturing USA, Inc., Mitchell Plastics, Navistar, Polaris, Remington, Turner Construction, TVA, and the UAH College of Nursing have all donated several thousand pairs of reusable protective eyewear to Huntsville Hospital, Madison Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, one of the area’s top employers, has kicked into high gear in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. TMMA is helping curb the spread of the virus by donating masks, safety glasses, shoe/boot covers, gloves, blankets, and cotton swabs to medical personnel.
The automobile engine company is also utilizing its facilities to mass fabricate 3-D printed face shields here in Huntsville.
According to Jeff Samms, COO of the Huntsville Hospital System, Toyota has a nice design for the shields and are now making hundreds of them for the hospital..
“The unknowns for all of us on this is what’s going to affect utilization,” he said. “COVID-19 patients use this isolation equipment at many times the normal rate, so there is an exponential growth in our use of the product, and we don’t know what the demand is going to be.”
Most of the hospitals admit their normal supply chains are broken right now and they are never quite sure what they’re going to get.
Toyota is also offering manufacturing and engineering expertise in support of any company seeking to increase their capacity for making medical supplies and equipment like ventilators and respirators.
The automaker continues to assist in providing essential supplies and emergency relief through local organizations and nonprofits, including significant monetary, “in-kind” donations to the United Way, community food banks, and to other key non-profit organizations geared towards helping those in need.
“Toyota’s core value has always been to contribute to society in meaningful ways beyond providing mobility for our customers,” said Ted Ogawa, incoming CEO, TMNA. “With our plants idled and our dealers focused on servicing customers, we are eager to contribute our expertise and know-how in order to help quickly bring to market the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the COVID crisis. Our message to the medical equipment community is we are here to help, please utilize our expertise.”
Although currently, the “numbers” – that is the number of infected patients in Madison County hospitals – have not reached the critical level first projected, Chamber President and CEO Chip Cherry said, “We are incredibly grateful for the response from our business community to help our hospitals and first responders stock up on their supplies.
“It has been so good to see boxes of items come in over the last few days. We know these will help in the days to come. We know there is strength in numbers, and we and our members are committed to getting through this together.”