Berks County needed PPE: How four volunteers came together to help fill the gap

Dave Kline, a volunteer for the Berks County PPE Resource Network, makes a delivery (Source: Berks County Resource Network).

By Lauren Manelius

READING, Pa. —  The Berks PPE Resource Network is one of the many community groups formed around the state by Pennsylvanians who have found ways join efforts and innovate in order to address crucial medical supply needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the group continues to refine itself — daily operations are run by four-person team — it’s found a secondary purpose in sharing its “secret sauce,” the ways it has achieved success.

“With so much momentum, this partnership saw success with very little barriers,” Ellen Albright, the “convener” of the Network told the Capital-Star. “After receiving a few inquiries from other communities on how to pull something together to this scale, we absolutely felt compelled to share our experience. The more communities that pull together to ‘home grow’ their own solutions … the safer our communities can become in this fight against COVID-19.”

The Network’s success is significant: Through Thursday, it had developed, manufactured, and distributed about 31,890 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to more than 218 organizations that serve populations vulnerable to COVID-19.  

All for free.

Beneficiaries include medical providers, assisted living facilities, and first responders. Manufactured and donated PPE items include face masks, face shields, mask straps, medical gowns, dividers, and sanitizer. 

The Network is comprised of nearly 100 volunteers and local businesses that have donated funding, equipment, and materials. Early financial backers included Berks Alliance, The Friends of the Reading Hospital, and the nonprofit Berks County Community Foundation. 

A crew of four runs daily operations, organized by Albright, director of talent and workforce development for the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance. 

It is my role to bring together partners, potential donors, the business community, and connect these individuals to help fulfill the various needs of our community as it relates to PPE shortages,” Albright told the Capital-Star.

As reported by the Reading Eagle, Albright helped spark the Network’s formation when she sent about half a dozen emails to contacts in the local manufacturing and scientific research communities, looking to brainstorm ways to help struggling medical providers.

One of the first to answer was Adelle Schade, a dean at Albright College and director of its Science Research Institute. She leads scientific and legal communications, data management, and supply chain management — including securing FDA approval for the face shields the Network developed.

Another was Chris Spohn, director of operations and project development for the Hamburg Area School District. In addition to figuring out how the district can adapt to continue to serve students, he is directing the provision of supplies and materials for those running the Network’s 3D printers. 

“Early in the development of this project, we learned that a local college had multiple 3D printers sitting idle due to the closure of the campus,” Spohn told the Capital-Star. “I worked with Kris Jackson to identify the 3D printers, then worked with the college administration to overcome some bureaucratic obstacles. Those printers are now on loan to the network.”

Kris Jackson typically helps run two businesses, as co-founder of CrossTrainer Mixed Reality, which develops augmented and virtual reality training products, and manager of GoggleWorks Virtual Reality Lab. 

These skills translated into him serving as “Captain of the Makers,” Albright told the Capital-Star, as he oversees the Network’s “Build Team,” those who are using personal, institutional, or company equipment and/or materials to prototype and engineer the PPE.

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Jackson also managed the redesign of early PPE models. The team tested initial models on smaller user groups of nurses and policemen, incorporating their feedback into design changes before distributing the improved models on a larger scale. 

For PPE distribution, the Network’s goal now is two-fold: continue to support local nonprofits and community healthcare facilities at no cost, and refer customers and businesses that are able to purchase it to the companies that have been devoting time and resources to the Network, in order to support them when they’re able to resume business operations.

To help others follow suit, the Network is using its website to make its methodology publicly available at no cost, so far uploading two videos with the aim of instructing others how to mobilize their own communities. It also shared the FDA-approved 3D PPE printing guides developed by the Build Team.

Albright stresses that constant communication is paramount to a group like this succeeding. The Network uses Facebook, Slack chat, and frequent Zoom meetings to regularly connect with each other — the daily operations team, Build Team, end-users — to allow for feedback and adaptation.

Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers the Lancaster/Reading area for the Capital Star. Follow her on Twitter @El_Manels.