covid heroes

University of Houston partners with health system to provide COVID-19 protective equipment

Aaron McEuen of the University of Houston's Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design answered the call for creating medical face shields for Harris Health System. Photo via uh.edu

A Houston health system was in need of protective personal equipment, or PPE, when they reached out to a local academic institution for support.

Harris Health System tapped the University of Houston to make medical face shields for doctors and nurses at the system's two hospitals — Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Face shields are one of our most challenging pieces of protective equipment to get during these times of need," says Chris Okezie, vice president of system operations at Harris Health System, in a news release. "They're also the most effective equipment to protect our front-line staff."

One college on campus is particularly equipped to build things, and that's the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design — specifically the college's Burdette Keeland Jr. Design Exploration Center. It took only a day for the center to build a prototype. Harris Health then made an initial order of 500 masks.

The lab uses universal laser cutters to create the semi-circle of plastic for the shield — the machines can cut 10 pieces in less than 3 minutes. Then, it can be assembled manually. Aaron McEuen, instructional lab manager at the center, is leading the efforts.

"Honestly, it's nice to be productive. I know a lot of people are cooped up in their houses," he says. "We're lucky to have the opportunity to contribute."

One challenge McEuen is facing is procuring the raw materials for the shields. as shipping and delivery times are slower during the pandemic. Despite the obstacles, Harris Health System's president and CEO, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, is grateful for the support and effort.

"This is a great example of how people of this great city and county come together to address a common and dire need," says Porsa in the release. "I want to personally thank the staff and leadership of University of Houston for stepping up and leading the way to help Harris Health care for our communities in the safest possible way."

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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