The loathsome traffic that once plagued Austin’s Interstate 35 has mercifully and eerily vanished during the COVID-19 crisis. In its place, a new, almost imperceptible superhighway has sprung up across the community, with the goal of protecting Central Texans from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
This new network connects a disparate set of volunteers — individuals, tech labs, even whiskey distillers — to coordinate resources and talent during the pandemic. On one end, someone offers raw materials, like cloth, glycerine, or plastic sheeting. This is funneled to people and companies making face masks, hand sanitizer, or face shields. On another end, organizations can declare their needs for equipment, then receive donations of protective gear made by others across the network.
At the center of this superhighway is the University of Texas Dell Medical School and its new COVID-19 ATX Exchange, the hub that ties each piece together. This effort primarily serves “second-line” care providers, who work directly with clients via home visits or food deliveries, in homeless shelters or birthing centers.
“Even though health care workers have to be prioritized, there will always be those in the community, like Meals on Wheels, who have to continue serving the underserved,” says Dr. Nishi Viswanathan, director of Texas Health Catalyst at Dell Medical School. “But they will not be prioritized given the shortage of gear, so we wanted a mechanism for the community to see what is needed and to respond to that need.”
In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Dell Medical School became a central player in the citywide response to the coronavirus, joining conversations with city officials, county health authorities, and medical leaders locally and nationally. At the same time, the school’s partnerships with local groups for public health studies made Dell an ideal champion for organizations like Meals on Wheels of Central Texas, and others.
Leading the effort is Dr. Maninder Kahlon, who is vice dean of Dell Medical School’s Health Ecosystem and a professor of population health. “We want to leverage all the strengths we have as an academic medical center tied to UT, and tied to the network of innovation around the country,” Kahlon says. “We want to leverage that to support the community.”
In a matter of days, the small working group propped up the official COVID-19 ATX Exchange website, which lists vetted needs, vetted designs, and connections made: 130 DIY masks to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and 1,500 gloves to El Buen Samaritano. As of April 13, the exchange successfully delivered more than 27,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to the region’s social service providers.
Viswanathan says she has been humbled by the outpouring of support from the community as more people learn about the exchange. “One of them told me one day that she was up until 4:30am making masks, and I was completely floored. That is the degree to which the Austin community is responding. We have to make sure that if these people are working so hard, that we are responsive to the questions they are asking, or picking up what they make and getting it where it’s needed.”
Dr. Ruben Rathnasingham is officially the medical school’s assistant dean for Health Product Innovation. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT and a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics. Over the past month, he’s coordinated efforts with other medical experts to refine and vet the designs now listed on the exchange as safe and practical for masks and face shields. He’s also wrestling with a conundrum involving hand sanitizer and squeezy bottles, while also developing plans, with a team of others, to build low-cost ventilators.
“It’s been a nice blend of intellectual and physical activity,” Dr. Rathnasingham says. “I’m bottling [hand sanitizer] with a whole bunch of people and carrying boxes of stuff to different places. It’s kind of invigorating and rewarding to know that this community is getting what they need. But there is still more need out there. We need to deliver thousands of bottles, but we’re not delivering thousands of bottles.”
For “second-line” service providers across Central Texas, the donations have provided important safety buffers as they continue to work with clients. The exchange also preserves precious time and energy for organizations operating beyond capacity, says Amy Price, development and communications director for Front Steps, which runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the city’s downtown homeless shelter.
Price says she’s heard from many people kindly offering donations of DIY masks, but the organization is running on a skeleton crew and putting out new fires as they pop up across the homeless community.
“I can’t drive all over the city to pick up one and two masks, even though we need them,” Price says. “The exchanges are brilliant because they have an open loading dock area. People can drop stuff off. Then, when the masks come to the shelter, it’s one delivery person coming to our back gate and giving us 500 masks. The exchange really minimizes risk and the time it takes for us to get the supplies we need. And it just felt so good for staff to know that health care professionals wanted to make sure the shelter staff had masks.”
For those wanting to contribute and help meet demand, the COVID-19 ATX Exchange offers a trusty guide to what’s needed, how to make it, and how to pass it on.
“What this group within the Dell Medical School is doing for the community is bringing these minds together so that we move forward as a community, as opposed to moving forward as a bunch of individuals,” says Milton Lopez, who runs a hardware lab for a local tech company called Spark Cognition, which is now using its 3D printers to create masks and face shields for the exchange. “The group at Dell Medical School is the most qualified currently to tell us what the biggest need is, so we’re listening to that and responding by providing any assistance we can.”
Lopez and his team are just one of many contributors keeping this new superhighway running with donations of equipment and information. Others, like Gayle Evers, turned early mask-making instructions into a video tutorial that’s now available on the exchange, so others don’t waste time on trial and error. Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas, is now producing 50 gallons of hand-sanitizer daily, on top of its bourbon production, to send to the exchange, as well as frontline workers across the state.
As the exchange continues to refine its system and adapt to shifting needs across the community, Dr. Kahlon, who leads the exchange, hopes this effort underscores the importance of bringing health care support to people where they already are, rather than waiting to see them in doctor’s offices and hospitals. “We need to make it easier for people to be healthy and get the help they need without coming into health care,” Kahlon says.” I hope that gets emphasized even more.”