UConn CLAS Alumni Help in the Fight Against COVID-19

Aziz Sandhu (bottom), Sameer Laul (far right), Sahil Laul (center right) and Anupam Laul collaborated over Zoom video calls to design their product.
CLAS alumni Aziz Sandhu (bottom), Sameer Laul (far right), Sahil Laul (center right) and Anupam Laul collaborated over Zoom video calls to design their product. (Contributed photo)

Since state-wide shutdowns began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the country have been looking for ways to help doctors, teachers, and their neighbors. Among them are five UConn College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumni, who stepped up to save lives, create much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE), and develop an app that could improve communications during future crises.

20,000 Face Masks

“When the coronavirus pandemic began, it became clear that our community, state, and country needed to support our health care providers and first responders,” says Christina “CJ” Lombardi ’13 (CLAS), who works in sales at New York-based Promotional Development, Inc., which designs and manufactures retail displays. The company immediately donated 20,000 surgical masks to over 30 different health care providers in the Brooklyn, NY area and began manufacturing 47,000 face shields.

These masks and face shields can help save health care workers’ lives by protecting them from contracting the virus as they treat patients. But for weeks, there was a dangerously short supply in New York City. Hospitals rationed supplies, even asking staff to wear the same mask for days. At the time, New York City alone had more positive cases than any other country in the world.

Lombardi knew that Promotional Development, Inc., a company owned by her father and three close business partners, could help.

“We’re plastics manufacturers and we have the equipment to cut and form plastic. So we adjusted to that need quickly,” she says.

Christine “CJ” Lombardi ’13 (CLAS), a history major, now works in sales at Promotional Development, Inc.
Christine “CJ” Lombardi ’13 (CLAS), a history major, now works in sales at Promotional Development, Inc. (Contributed photo)

As a history major at UConn, Lombardi learned that throughout history, industries and manufacturers transitioned to help produce items or weapons during war or crisis. She said drawing on that information helped the company decide to step up.

“The best way to help out in any situation is to use the skills that you have. I’m in a position where I can manufacture masks, but everyone can do their part even if that means taking this seriously and staying home.”

Currently, they have sold 28,000 face shields, and have another thousand ready to ship.

On the Frontline

As an undergraduate at UConn, Johnathon LeBaron ’08 (CLAS) conducted research on how overcrowding in emergency rooms negatively impacts the care provided to patients. But 12 years later, the overcrowding in his own emergency department caused by COVID-19 was “as close to a disaster as you could get.”

LeBaron is medical director of the adult emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Queens (NYPQ) hospital in Flushing, New York. His work puts him in charge of a Level 1 Trauma center that has treated thousands of COVID-19 patients, with hundreds in critical condition.

Usually, an emergency department like LeBaron’s at NYPQ can host between 220 and 230 new adult patients per day, who wait about eight hours for a hospital bed. But as the pandemic spread, the number of patients increased drastically, rising to up to 310 new adult patients each day.

More patients coming in had low oxygen levels and needed to be intubated – have a tube inserted to help them breathe – says LeBaron. With only so many ventilators to go around, and patients staying in the hospital for up to two weeks, LeBaron and NYPQ had to act quickly.

“For the two weeks in the middle of the surge, patients were very sick and we didn’t have anywhere to put them,” LeBaron says. “We had a couple of days when it was tight, but we never ran out of ventilators for patients.”

Patients at New York-Presbyterian Queens being wheeled out after overcoming the COVID-19 virus.
Patients at New York-Presbyterian Queens being wheeled out after overcoming the COVID-19 virus. (Contributed photo)

Hospital staff, including nurses, anesthetists, and clinicians from all departments, jumped in to help treat the patients and create space for them. They converted their endoscopy suite, their operation rooms, and their cafeteria into in-patient areas, where they could put sick patients on beds. For many of the doctors and nurses, seeing patients in their 30s and 40s succumb to the infection hit home.

“We’re at risk of catching the virus every time we see a patient,” LeBaron says. “We’ve had a few doctors who caught it. Most of them are fine, but some need to be treated in hospital. That’s scary.”

LeBaron and NYPQ were able to stay one step ahead of the virus because of teamwork, and locals who donated food and supplies to the hospital workers.

“It’s been incredible to see how much people care about each other,” LeBaron says. “I don’t know if I feel like a hero, but I’ve done everything I can to help patients, to get someone’s mother or father back to them.”

Getting the Message Right

Three other UConn CLAS alumni are seeking funding to produce an app that would improve crisis communication to the general public during situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 began to spread, Aziz Sandhu, ’19 (CLAS), Sahil Laul ’19 (CLAS) and Sameer Laul ’15 (CLAS) thought that few communications were doing a good job convincing the public of the importance of social distancing, with misinformation running rampant on social media.

“It’s kind of abstract for most people,” Aziz says. “You need to have an emotional connection to the data [about the severity of COVID-19]. Even a striking number may not resonate with people, so you need to put a face to it.”

One of the major causes behind the rapid spread of the virus is that many people don’t see the risks in their behavior—until it has affected someone they know personally.

“We found there were a lot of people whose voices were not being heard,” says Sameer, a former MCB major. “It took time for clinicians’ voices to be elevated.”

Aziz, Sameer, and Sahil heard about a Johns Hopkins COVID-19  Virtual Design Challenge calling for teams to compete in a five-day, student-run, entirely online hackathon to develop solutions to the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within five days, the three, along with Dr. Anupam Laul of the SUNY School of Optometry, developed and pitched a product that earned a place in the top 20 of 235 entries.

Their idea was to create a communication platform that would provide emotional and personal context to help people make sense of the barrage of information being shared during a crisis.

“We want to show people what others are experiencing in a way social media may not be able to address,” says Aziz. “Even though my neighbor may be directly affected, social media may not capture that.”

Aziz, a former Leadership Legacy student and Cohen Scholar, is interested in the role that government has in protecting health and ensuring equity in that space.

“We’re not just looking at the immediate effects of what our solution can accomplish, but the long-term impacts COVID-19 is going to have on society,” Sahil adds. Sahil first got involved in documentary filmmaking through a UConn IDEA Grant, while he was double majoring in MCB and Global Health as an individualized major. Now a multimedia specialist at UConn Global Affairs, Sahil’s storytelling skills are essential to their final product, as they seek ways to show the COVID-19 narratives as a collective, and global, story.

The team is currently working to find opportunities to make their project a reality through venture funding and technology connections.

 

To learn more about the design challenge team, please contact Sahil Laul at sahil.laul@uconn.edu.