FAIRFIELD, Conn.—When Sacred Heart University’s faculty and staff learned they would be working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, they chose to be proactive, rather than sit back and watch the world struggle. They started asking each other, “How can we help?” And they came up with answers.
Within days, faculty came together and devised plans to help those who are fighting the crisis on the front lines.
Shelter for first responders, health-care workers
Neighboring communities have been seeking shelters for first responders who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and need to self-isolate for 14 days away from their families. Sacred Heart is providing these responders, as well as health-care workers and other displaced persons requested by local authorities, with a place to stay.
“No one wants to bring this infection home, but they’re put on that front line to fight this pandemic,” said Gary MacNamara, SHU’s executive director of public safety and governmental affairs. “We hope all local emergency responders and health professionals know they have a home at Sacred Heart for as long as they need it.”
MacNamara, former Fairfield police chief, is encouraging all emergency responders to pack a travel bag and bring it with them to work each day. If they are exposed, they won’t have to go home for personal belongings; they can just come to the University.
Center for Healthcare Education provides equipment
When administrators from Bridgeport Hospital reached out to SHU looking for equipment to set up a temporary patient-housing tent, Mary Alice Donius, dean of the Dr. Susan L. Davis, RN, & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing, didn’t think twice. Within an hour, she let the administrators know the Center for Healthcare Education could provide 12 set-ups for the hospital’s tent. Each includes a bed or cot, trash can, side table or cart with drawers, over-bed table and an IV pole.
“If we can help, we will,” Donius said. “We are happy to provide any services we can to the health-care workers fighting this fight.”
The University also distributed additional medical supplies to area hospitals. This included surgical masks, N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, all which would normally be used by students in SHU’s nursing and health professions programs. Sacred Heart also offered to house tents on its campus for hospitals in need of extra space for its COVID-19 patients.
SHU President John J. Petillo shared his thoughts in an editorial for the Hartford Courant requesting that the state lift regulations and allow medical students and students in health professions who are about to graduate to be allowed to work as soon as possible. Governor Lamont has since made that decision.
In light of the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), professor Tolga Kaya and IDEA Lab manager Cedric Bleimling of the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology (WCBT) took home 3D printers from the University’s IDEA Lab to manufacture face shields for health-care workers. “We filled my minivan with the printers and dropped them off at our houses, all while practicing social distancing,” said Kaya, who is also director of the engineering program in the School of Computer Science & Engineering. “We are going to do whatever we can do to help the world.”
To make the shields, these professors ordered plastic and elastic fabric online. The 3D printers manufacture two pieces for the masks: the top part of the shield, which holds the elastic fabric or headband, and a bottom piece that enables the plastic to stay curved around the user’s face. Kaya estimated each shield costs about $5.
The printers produce materials to make one mask per hour. The faculty members have made more than 100 masks so far.
Kaya and Bleimling are also taking part in an initiative to create ventilators, a device that helps patients breathe. Hospitals across the country are struggling with ventilator shortages. The IDEA Lab team took part in a local initiative led by MakeHaven, a makerspace in New Haven, to prototype a ventilator based on an existing Israeli design called “AmboVent.” If the coalition is successful, Bleimling said a production batch could help fight the shortages in local hospitals.
“Think of all the people who could be saved,” Kaya said.
Bleimling said these efforts are truly grassroots—engineers and people from makerspaces are coming together to try to find solutions to serious problems. He and Kaya have received interest from industry partners, companies and others asking for advice related to the pandemic, he said.
“It’s been an amazing response from people,” said Bleimling.
Folding for a cure
Sacred Heart also is donating unused computer bandwidth to help researchers find potential cures for COVID-19. The University’s IT department downloaded software provided by the organization Folding@Home on computers in the WCBT’s IDEA and artificial intelligence labs.
“Since classes are being hosted online, a lot of the computer labs are not currently being used,” said Tom Tarantino, a technical support specialist. “We thought it would be a good idea to put some of the computing power to good use.”
Folding@Home describes itself online as a distributed computing project for simulating protein dynamics, including the process of protein folding and the movements of proteins implicated in various diseases. It brings together citizen scientists who volunteer to run simulations of protein dynamics on their personal computers. Folding refers to the way human proteins fold in the body’s cells. Bodies rely on proteins to stay healthy and to assemble themselves by folding, according to Folding@Home.
Tarantino said that, through Folding@Home’s software, SHU computers are set to analyze the COVID-19 protein. Sometimes the computers are analyzing the genetic makeup of the protein and sometimes it’s looking for areas on the protein itself that are vulnerable. These calculations would take “ages” for humans to do, so researchers from Stanford University developed Folding@Home to allow computers to join the effort, Tarantino said.
Researchers are trying to understand how the virus’s proteins work, with a goal of designing therapeutics to stop them, according to the organization.
Sacred Heart’s computers are contributing to the top 3% of Folding@Home’s calculations. “We have very powerful computers in these WCBT labs that can handle a lot of calculations at once, so it’s the ideal environment for computational research,” said Tarantino. “Folding@Home sends a job to our computers, our computers analyze the protein, and they report the information back to Folding@Home. Our results and those of everyone else participating in this project globally are analyzed by scientists to help find cures and better understand COVID-19.”
“I think given a cause, people demonstrate innovation and the ability to change things,” Bleimling said.
Throughout the pandemic, Kaya said, Martha Crawford, WCBT dean, has been very supportive, with conversations over text, video and phone taking place at all hours of the day and night. “She has allowed us to think more and more and is always telling us to “go for it” and asking what she can do to help,” he said.
About Sacred Heart University
As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 385 Colleges–2020 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best 252 Business Schools–2019 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theater. www.sacredheart.edu