Research assistant Nayereh Dadoo ’18 Ph.D. and PDC research manager Donna Johnson ’79, ’90 Ph.D. mix hand sanitizer at the Process Development Center.
COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the University of Maine’s unique statewide role as Maine’s land-grant university.
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FACULTY, STAFF, AND STUDENTS have been mobilized to support state and national health, safety, and economic concerns related to the pandemic. Many of their efforts have been conducted by a UMaine-led COVID-19 innovation team that has brought together university faculty and staff with a diverse group of external partners, including health care providers, manufacturers, and government officials.
Other research and public service efforts have been coordinated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The following examples summarize some of those projects and initiatives.
Bringing Partners to the Table
By late March, hand sanitizer shortages at Maine hospitals and other health care facilities were becoming apparent. The regular national supply chains hospitals relied on were strained by high demand throughout the country, and Maine facilities were increasingly concerned about meeting their existing daily needs in addition to planning for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients.
In response, UMaine formed its COVID-19 innovation team to evaluate and develop solutions to the challenges faced by Maine’s health care centers. Along with faculty, staff, and students, the innovation team included representatives of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Maine MEP), MaineHealth, St. Joseph Hospital, and Northern Light Health. Other collaborating partners include the Manufacturers Association of Maine and Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center.
The group operates as part of a March 22 umbrella agreement with the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) allowing the University of Maine System to provide goods and services to Maine health care facilities and agencies as coordinated by MEMA. As of mid-July the innovation team was continuing to meet several times a week to respond to emerging needs raised by health care officials, often working in small teams to tackle individual problems.
Engaging UMaine’s Process Development Center
Located in Jenness Hall, UMaine’s Process Development Center is a commercial-scale pilot plant affiliated with the Chemical and Biomedical Engineering department. It supports the pulp, paper, and bioproducts sector with research, development, demonstration, and commercialization services. With its existing capacity for commercial-scale products and chemical engineering processes, the facility was able to pivot swiftly to scale up production of hospital-grade, FDA-compliant hand sanitizer. The sanitizer was quickly distributed to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. PDC director Colleen Walker and two professors of biomedical engineering, Mike Mason and Bill Desisto, led the efforts.
The response to this limited initial production run made it clear that more production would be required to meet demand, necessitating a steady supply of ethanol. Fortunately, Maine’s craft distilleries and brewers were ready to help. Mason began coordinating with distillers around the state to source ethanol — some of it made from local brewers’ spent grains — to support UMaine’s production. New England Distilling, Hardshore Distilling, Stroudwater Distillery, Sebago Lake Distillery, Split Rock Distilling, Blue Barren Distillery, and Mossy Ledge Spirits were among the university’s partners in this effort, and brewers including Allagash, Maine Beer, Rising Tide, Foundation, Oxbow, Shipyard, and Baxter provided feedstock for the distilleries.
UMaine and the distilleries ramped up hand sanitizer production together, creating an in-state supply chain that could support health care needs. Through mid-May, PDC has produced more than 3,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, which has been delivered to more than 100 locations in Maine. Recipients have included major hospitals, long-term care facilities, Maine tribal health facilities, and first responders.
Creating Personal Protective Equipment
The College of Engineering’s Advanced Manu–facturing Center works with businesses, entrepreneurs, students, and researchers throughout Maine to provide them with high-level technical resources and expertise. In late April, an urgent request came in from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency needed chemical solutions used to fit medical workers with N95 masks, a key piece of personal protective equipment (PPE), and was facing a national shortage of fit-testing kits and test solutions.
Fit testing, which tests the seal between the facepiece on a respirator mask and the wearer’s face, is required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The test must be conducted when a worker is first fitted for a respirator, such as an N95. Chemical solutions with a distinctive taste or odor are used in the N95 fitting process to ensure that the mask forms a tight seal with the wearer’s face and keeps contaminated air out. In the first week of May, UMaine delivered its first batches of fit-testing solutions for Maine CDC to distribute to the Maine National Guard and partner agencies that conduct the tests.
Those services have been in high demand as Maine manufacturers have pivoted to produce solutions that could aid in pandemic response.
The AMC team has tested in excess of 100 different types of material intended for use in face coverings, everything from basic cotton t-shirts to technical fabrics. Their methods measure how effective the material is at blocking particles of different sizes. John Belding ’96, AMC director, has overseen design, prototyping, and materials testing services for a variety of companies looking to respond to shortages and emerging needs. AMC has helped a number of companies, including L.L.Bean and Strainrite, gauge the filtration properties of different types of material they intend to use to make face coverings.
Although the N95 is typically a single-use mask, hospitals are now evaluating protocols to sterilize and reuse this and other forms of PPE. Assistant professor Caitlin Howell ’06, ’08G and professor David Neivandt, both of the Department of Chemical and Bio–medical Engineering, have provided key counsel to Maine’s health care community on decontamination and sterilization of PPE.
AMC has also assisted Maine plastics manufacturers with new products. Given nationwide shortages of N95s, many hospitals have turned to alternative forms of PPE, including clear plastic face shields. The shields made an ideal product for local manufacture, and AMC facilitated their rapid development by evaluating prototype designs and by working with in-state manufacturers on production. By late April, Maine companies had produced hundreds of thousands of shields, more than enough to meet in-state needs and supply other markets.
A request from MaineHealth led AMC to prototype “aerosol boxes” that can be used to protect medical workers during transportation and intubation procedures in patients suspected to have COVID-19. The clear plastic boxes are based on a concept first conceived by a physician in Taiwan whose aerosol box design to treat COVID-19 patients has been shared widely during the pandemic.
AMC’s box designs were developed in coordination with Robert “Doc” Bowie, pro–fessor of practice in the biomedical engineering program at UMaine, with help from the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The aerosol boxes have been tested in area hospitals and refined based on feedback from health care workers. Two variations of the boxes are being manufactured in Maine for both in-state and out-of-state hospitals and providers.
Capitalizing on Faculty Expertise
Melissa Maginnis, assistant professor of microbiology, heads the COVID-19 Science Advisory Board. Chaired by UMaine Pres–ident Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the advisory board includes faculty and other researchers from across the University of Maine System. It was established by System Chancellor Dannel Malloy to stay fully abreast of fast-breaking scientific developments in areas relevant for universities and the pandemic, including vaccine development, diagnostic and serology testing, antiviral treatments, contact tracing, and others. UMaine faculty members Kristy Townsend ’02, associate professor of neurobiology, Caitlin Howell ’06, ’08G, assistant professor of bioengineering, and Rob Wheeler, associate professor of microbiology, are the other core scientific members of the advisory group. The team also advises the System’s 2020 Safe Return Planning Committee regarding science-based approaches to safely welcoming students, faculty, staff, and the public back to our universities.
Adding to the Health Care Workforce
In addition to supporting frontline health care workers behind the scenes, UMaine is also helping reinforce the ranks.
Thirty-eight undergraduate students in the University of Maine School of Nursing graduated April 28 — two weeks early — thus allowing them to pursue their licensure sooner and, ultimately, expedite their entry into the workforce. In addition to early graduation, the School of Nursing worked with its national accreditors and 14 hospitals in Maine and across the nation to establish opportunities for students to work as Certified Nursing Assistants. This paid employment will count toward their clinical hour requirements and support their timely academic progression while also supporting the frontline workforce needs related to COVID-19.
This summer, the university has offered all final-semester nursing courses to 28 students who were set to complete their coursework during the fall semester. As a result, those nursing majors will be able to enter the workforce in August, four months ahead of schedule.
Addressing Economic Concerns
In addition to supporting Maine agencies with a public health mission, UMaine has also worked with government partners in an effort to mitigate the economic impact of prolonged shutdowns related to the pandemic.
Andrew Crawley, an assistant professor of regional economic development with UMaine’s School of Economics, and six graduate students are collaborating with the State Economist’s Office to develop forecasts for how much COVID-19 will affect Maine’s economy. They are creating five models to evaluate the possible loss in tourism spending, travel-related spending, cruise ship spending, state revenues, and overall sectoral output changes. The forecasts will also include prospects for recovery.
UMaine’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development (OIED) has conducted outreach to companies with business ties to the university, documenting their concerns and working to connect them with resources. Veena Dinesh, director of business incubation, has coordinated this outreach to UMaine spin-out companies, incubator tenants, industrial clients, student-run businesses and others.
These efforts continue and will expand as Maine moves toward reopening.
Extending a Hand to Growers and Producers
The University of Maine Cooperative Exten– sion, led by Dean Hannah Carter, has pivoted quickly to support Maine food producers during an uncertain time.
An early and visible Extension effort was the development of a database that connects producers with retail customers looking to purchase local food. Allison Lakin, owner of East Forty Farm and Dairy, and Lakin’s Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro, first conceived the idea when business from restaurant clients declined as the pandemic forced eateries to close. Lakin developed an initial spreadsheet and worked with the Extension team to expand the list of producers offering alternative pickup options for Maine meat, seafood, produce, and other items.
Launched in late March, the database is hosted on the University of Maine Extension website as both an interactive map and a searchable spreadsheet and contains more than 400 Maine producers.
UMaine Extension has also worked closely with producers in other ways, developing fact sheets, FAQ documents, and other information for Maine’s agricultural community, surveying producers to gauge their needs and concerns, and hosting weekly online meetings for farmers to connect and share information.
To support the wider community, UMaine Extension has developed educational materials for distance learning, offered virtual science cafés through Maine 4-H, and provided new resources for home cooks and gardeners.