Colorado’s universities pivot to fight coronavirus outbreak with labs closed

As the novel coronavirus began to spread through Colorado, Steve Fenster learned firsthand how hospitals were about to be tested.

The co-chair of the biology department at Fort Lewis College in Durango heard from him wife, a nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center, that critical personal protection equipment such as gloves and masks were going to be in short supply in the near future.

Classes at the college by this point had moved online, so the school’s labs were empty.

“We had all this stuff there, and our labs were effectively shut down for the rest of the year,” Fenster said. “Why have this equipment sitting around here?”

Fenster is one of a host of college professors and university staffers around Colorado heeding the call as COVID-19 has turned labs into hospital supply centers, production facilities and hubs for innovative ideas to fight the global pandemic. Higher education institutions up and down the Front Range, out onto the Western Slope and into the Four Corners are taking stock of their inventory and pitching in to fill Colorado’s shortage of much-needed personal protection equipment.

Gov. Jared Polis has reached out to colleges and universities to ask for supplies, while the Colorado Department of Higher Education has issued guidance for schools to only use personal protection equipment for critical research supporting public health.

Fenster first started gathering supplies in his biology department, but soon the chemistry, geology and anthropology departments — and even the campus book store — added to the pile.

Erin Lehmer, a Fort Lewis biology professor, has done extensive research into the hantavirus — a severe respiratory disease — which meant she already had several high-quality respirators on hand. That equipment immediately went to the donation.

“With campuses closed down and no one using it, we should be donating everything we can spare to health care workers,” Lehmer said.

By the end of the donation haul, Fenster filled the back of pickup truck with thousands of gloves, hundreds of eye protection goggles, several hundred masks and an assortment of gowns and aprons. The supplies went to Mercy Regional Medical Center along with an Indian Health Service facility in Shiprock, New Mexico.

With resources in limited supply, and the federal government still unable to provide states what they need to protect health care workers and first responders, Polis has turned to schools to help out.

“The governor has been outspoken about the need for more PPE for Colorado’s frontline medical professionals providing care,” Conor Cahill, a Polis spokesman, said in a statement. “He has asked for more PPE from the federal government and reached out to businesses and universities to collect any that may not be being used in order to save lives in our state.”

Fort Lewis is not alone. The University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus went to work across its vast network of idled labs and educational facilities, collecting more than 36,600 masks, 47,500 disposable lab gowns, 245,000 pairs of gloves and 50 cases of disinfectant wipes. The CU School of Dental Medicine pitched in with 130,000 pairs of gloves, 45,000 gowns and 35,000 masks.

CU Anschutz also was tapped to test face shields before they’re shipped to hospitals, and hosts a clinical trial for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. At Colorado State University, an engineering lab has been transformed into the official testing site for respirators and surgical masks for distribution throughout the state.

Meanwhile, the University of Denver has partnered with a host of other Colorado colleges and universities with a mission to fill the thousands of empty jobs that are essential to fighting the new coronavirus outbreak.

“Colorado COVID Corps” is working to fill open positions at grocery stores, hospitals, warehouses and farms, as well as delivery services across industries. University students and faculty are currently building a database of job opportunities that are considered “essential” and developing partnerships with companies in need of workers.

In addition, DU engineers are 3D-printing plastic face shields for use in hospitals.

As the new coronavirus reaches every corner of the state, every piece of equipment helps.

“We’re a small county,” Fenster said, referring to La Plata County in southwest Colorado. “These regional colleges could make a real impact to the local community.”

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