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Pokes Step Up During Pandemic

September 16, 2020
person in facemask at a row of 3D printers
Student Ann Flores helps 3D print face shields in the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Student Innovation Center.

From assisting with testing to making facemasks, UW students and faculty helped with a wide range of COVID-19 needs.

 

By Micaela Myers and Institutional Communications 

When microbiology student Meagan Soehn of Casper began her final semester last spring, little did she know she’d spend her extended spring break helping the state with COVID-19 testing.

“It’s nice to help out. It feels important and worthwhile,” says Soehn, who went on to become an emergency hire at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory. “It also really helps to show things I learned in my classes, especially as a microbiology student. We talk about outbreaks in infectious diseases, but to be able to see all this up close is something you can’t get in the classroom.”

Soehn learned the needed skills doing undergraduate research in UW Associate Professor and Veterinary Epidemiologist Brant Schumaker’s lab. He also helped with the testing along with several other UW students.

Wyoming Public Health Laboratory Microbiology Laboratories Manager Noah Hull is himself a UW graduate.

“The WPHL has one of the faster turnaround times in the country for COVID-19 testing, averaging seven hours from receipt to result,” he said in early April. “In fact, we have been able to test all samples that have been received each day without creating a backlog. Much of this success is because we have been able to make 15 emergency hires at our lab. The vast majority of these hires are either current UW undergraduate students, graduate students or recent graduates of UW, almost exclusively from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (veterinary sciences and molecular biology).”

The major limiting factor in testing was not staff but rather the availability of sample preparation kits. WPHL worked with UW faculty members Schumaker, Will Laegreid and Mark Gomelsky to gather consumable supplies such as plastic tubes that were back-ordered and creating a bottleneck for the sampling of patients. UW donated close to 4,000 of much-needed conical tubes.

Hull says: “This is quintessential Wyoming behavior and displaying that ‘cowboy–up’ mentality. Without hesitation, the folks at UW jumped into action to allow us to serve the citizens of the state. We are very appreciative to be in such state that cares this much.”

In addition to testing supplies, UW held a supply drive for personal protective equipment in April, netting 33,390 gloves, 529 N95 masks, 282 other masks, 123 safety glasses and goggles, and 118 gowns, as well as containers of hand sanitizer, wipes, disinfectant and biohazard bags and boxes.

 

UW Prints 3D Surgical Masks

Tyler Kerr, UW’s makerspace coordinator in the Engineering Education and Research Building’s Student Innovation Center, and his team also stepped up, using 3D printers and laser cutters to produce protective masks and face shields.

“We have been provided a unique opportunity to lend our equipment, resources and expertise to help stem the tide, flatten the curve and prevent spread of the virus, however the medical community asks us to,” Kerr says. “How often in our lives can we say that we have $1.4 million in state-of-the-art equipment made almost exactly for rapid prototyping purposes such as these? To do nothing with these resources was never really an option. This was our call to arms.”

Cheyenne Regional Medical Center was the first hospital to request the masks and shields, but soon 20 other Wyoming medical facilities and departments also asked for help. To meet the demand, eight UW departments and other schools, such as Laramie County Community College, temporarily loaned the team an additional 16 3D printers to help print at a much greater capacity.

 

three people in facemasks, head covers and gloves working in a lab
Pharmacy Dean Kem Krueger assists with labeling, while Professor Sreejayan Nair and Research Associate Amit Thakar dispense hand sanitizer into containers.

Health Sciences Innovates

When the pandemic broke out, a hand sanitizer shortage quickly emerged. UW School of Pharmacy Professor Sreejayan Nair converted a pharmacy lab into a temporary hand sanitizer factory. Containers were distributed to Laramie fire stations, UW Student Health Service clinic, UW custodial services, Laramie Reproductive Clinic, Laramie Care Center, the Downtown Clinic, Albany Community Health Clinic and Ivinson Memorial Hospital.

Across the College of Health Sciences, students and faculty stepped up to help.

The Educational Health Center of Wyoming, which includes the Albany Community Health Clinic and two UW family medicine residency clinics in Casper and Cheyenne, began efforts to care for the increased number of patients, including facilitating telehealth appointments.

Health sciences students volunteered to help wherever needed, including providing patient screenings and other services to assist health care providers with the increased inflow of patients seeking treatment and/or testing for COVID-19. Students also filled other volunteer roles in their communities, including running errands for the elderly and helping with food distribution.

UW Associated Students of Social Work sponsored Supportive Talk and Resources, which provides social contact for community members who feel alone or just need someone to talk to via phone, text, email or video call.

 

Additional Efforts

In early April, in response to student hardships caused by COVID-19, UW took extraordinary steps to provide financial security for students, including paying the university’s 2,200 student employees, many of whom no longer have access to their positions, through the end of the semester; launching a $250,000 matching program, Pokes Make the Difference, by the UW Foundation’s Board of Directors to create an emergency fund of at least $500,000 for students in need; providing dozens of computers and other technology so students could complete the semester via online instruction at home; and a distribution of $163,000 in $300 stipends by the Associated Students of UW for students in need.

This fall, students who have suffered financial impacts from the pandemic can apply for up to $3,250 in grants through the federal CARES act funding approved by Gov. Mark Gordon (uwyo.edu/alerts/cares).

The American Heritage Center and the Wyoming State Museum also launched an effort to collect information via online surveys about the experiences and thoughts of Wyoming citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are just a small sampling of the many ways UW students, staff and faculty stepped up to help during the pandemic. Log on to uwyo.edu/uw/news to learn more.

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