UWM helping fight against COVID-19 on several fronts

April 16, 2020

Members of the UWM community are using several avenues to assist with the response to COVID-19.

UWM faculty members, staff and students are assisting efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic however possible, whether it’s providing personal protective equipment, offering expertise to health departments or pushing forward with relevant research.

UWM recently collected more than 30,000 gloves and over 1,000 other protective items, including hundreds of masks, and donated them for local distribution. Moreover, Kyle Jansson, director of the Prototyping Center at UWM’s Innovation Campus, is part of a citywide effort to mass-produce medical-grade face masks for health workers and first responders.

The MaskForce collaboration includes several area colleges and universities as well as Husco, Rexnord, Briggs & Stratton and many other companies. Its goal is to quickly produce respirator masks with as many reusable parts as possible. Jansson designed the first prototype with plastic and rubber parts that can be either 3D-printed or scaled up with injection-molding processes.

Usually, it would take months to make a high-performance medical device worthy of approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Jansson and his team, consisting of friends, colleagues and freelance engineers, jumped into the fray. In only 60 hours, they helped create a functional prototype that served as the coalition’s starting point. MaskForce is nearing final approval from its medical partners, Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

“This collaboration is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” said Jansson, adding that he speaks with up to 40 people a day. “I’ve been sending my CAD model out to anyone who is asking for latest versions of it – from local engineering powerhouse companies to people I don’t even know, who say, ‘how can I help?’”

Elsewhere in Milwaukee, seven UWM researchers at the Zilber School of Public Health are volunteering their expertise to the Milwaukee Health Department during the pandemic. They include epidemiologist Amy Kalkbrenner, who is helping determine the extent of COVID-19 spread in the absence of enough testing.

Kalkbrenner has launched a website, wecountcovid19. com, where people who feel sick can report their symptoms through a confidential survey using a smartphone or computer.

“While it’s not possible to know for sure that any given individual has coronavirus just because they report respiratory symptoms, it is possible to make pretty good guesses,” she said, based on known patterns of seasonal flu and allergies.

Open and free to anyone in the country, it will report information on symptoms by ZIP code and day, giving an improved picture of the outbreak. She hopes the survey will be particularly helpful in revealing conditions in the Milwaukee area.

“Our ability to better understand COVID-19 relies on this survey reaching as many people as possible,” Kalkbrenner said.

Biomedical engineer Masha Dabagh offers another way to help health professionals fighting coronavirus on the front lines.

Dabagh’s research could help reveal how COVID-19 progresses, particularly in high-risk patients. She is developing a computational model to predict a patient’s risk of infection and reveal avenues for potential treatment.

Dabagh said it’s difficult for the virus to pass through healthy membranes in the lungs and enter the bloodstream to spread. Her model mimics defects in respiratory membranes that would allow passage of the virus. These defects are caused by old age or diseases, like diabetes, and increase a person’s susceptibility to the virus. Understanding these defects could improve how patients with different underlying chronic diseases are treated.

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