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Protecting Caregivers’ Lives with Solution-Driven Unionism

The breakthrough occurred when labor and management came together at the University of Connecticut (UConn)’s Storrs main campus and its Farmington UConn Health (UCH) facilities. Together they devised a method for producing simple and inexpensive plastic frames that properly seal much-sought-after N95 respirator masks needed for first responders, nurses and allied health professionals.
“This is really just an example of what we’re all about,” said Elifho Obopilwe (in photo above, right) a research associate at UCH’s Musculoskeletal Institute. The member of our affiliated University Health Professionals (UHP) union played a pivotal role, firing up his lab’s 3D printer on a Saturday morning at 4:00AM to generate the frames.
 
“Honestly, this is how our lab operates under normal circumstances. In many ways, we’re just doing the job we always do,” Obopilwe added. “I’m glad to be part of the team.”
 
American Association of University Professors (AAUP)-affiliated local unions representing doctors, engineers and scientists at both campus had been striving to address the PPE shortage. Their members spearheaded the formation of a working group that now includes members of UHP and the UConn Graduate Employee Union (GEU-UAW), as well as interns, residents and management.
 
“An example of the collaboration is the 40,000 N95 masks that were discovered in a UCH warehouse,” said Dr. Michael Baldwin, MD, a radiologist at UCH. “Unfortunately, they were unusable because they didn’t seal properly.” 
 
“Team member Chris Wiles (above, left) showed us a retrofit frame that he’d adapted and it fit perfectly over the mask!” added Baldwin, a member of UCH-AAUP’s executive board. “Our cross-campus team will investigate the best way to keep the exoskeleton frames clean and we are also producing face shields,” he added.
 
Click here for press reporting on Wiles’ initial efforts to retrofit respirator masks.
 
The immediate objective is to fabricate 10,000 frames, which can be cleaned and reused once the N95 is replaced, and individually assign them to clinical care providers.
 
More than 13,000 of the N95 respirator masks that would become usable with the frames were secured by Dawn Humphries, a medical assistant in UCH’s Calhoun Cardiology Center. She called her friend Mike Clavette, whose family owns New England Industrial Supply in Newington, and asked if he had any PPE he could make available at cost.
 
“The amount of cases that he brought out to the loading dock was truly overwhelming; I started to cry,” said Humphries, a long-time UHP member. “I told him, ‘you don’t know how many lives you’re protecting or saving with this valuable equipment.'”
 
Click here for more on UConn Health’s appeal for protective gear and supplies.
 
Led by the cross-campus working group, labs in both Storrs and Farmington are busy on the next steps in developing sorely-needed PPE. They have designed and fabricated face shields for UCH’s emergency department and are turning their attention to particle testing that could lead to the development of new masks. 
 
“We’re proud to lend a hand to develop and produce much needed PPE,” said Thomas Bontly, an associate professor of philosophy at the Storrs campus. “This is another example of how union doctors, researchers and support staff across UConn campuses collaborate on solutions to critical problems.” 
 
The president of the UConn-AAUP local union added, “together we can overcome this challenge.”
 
As the state’s COVID-19 infection rate spikes upward, similar efforts are being replicated to provide critical care professionals in private hospitals and health facilities with protective gear. AFT Connecticut last week launched an appeal for supplies in order to shield frontline caregivers risking their own health to save their neighbors’ lives.
 
Click here to support and promote our “supplies for healthcare heroes” PPE drive.
 
Editors note: includes contributions by Chris DeFrancesco, UHP; Cindy Polinsky, UCH-AAUP; and Terri Reid, UCH Labor Coalition.
 
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