COVID-19, a wicked problem

Maya Trotz

I started this blog three months ago, penned the title, and then wrote nothing for a while. The title likely stemmed from this belief that we would pivot all of our energies to reduce the impact of COVID-19, and do so in some coordinated, united and collective manner. We being loosely, and broadly used here. That kind of coordination has happened in pockets, but for the most part I would say that it did not happen in my work environment, did not happen in my social sphere, did not happen in my city, did not happen in my profession, did not happen in my family, and did not happen nationally in the many in places I think of as home with the exception of Belize and Barbados. In fact, I plodded through March, April, May, and June with many unadjusted regular work agendas.

Apart from a class project that I redesigned to focus on COVID-19, my COVID-19 obsessions were add ons. A certain calmness entered my space at the end April due to the end of the semester, and to the intense crash course on all things COVID-19. I do still follow closely all of the Twitter feeds mentioned in my last blog, “COVID-19 with heart disease.” I’m probably following more closely again as it’s now July 30th, and I live in Florida where cases and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing at alarming rates, and some residents are against wearing masks.

The boxes piled high starting in March spoke to those add ons, some of which remain unfinished projects in my home. They can be classified as: 1) online production, 2) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), 3) food and nutrition, 4) gadgets, and 5) exercise. I write about them below, if anything to keep track of what I’ve done during this time.

Online Production. Jim Pfaendtner, Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington, tweeted a laundry list of things his department had done to transition to online education and staff teleworking. I shared with colleagues in my department. A day later, one recommended the Blue Yeti mic based on YouTubers reviews, and the much cheaper Snowball. By the time I read up on the cameras, and mics with USB-C connections, most were sold out or on back order. Needless, my laptop was ready for the online world after spring break, and I even set up camera lights to get it right — the home studio was in full effect. I now have a Verizon MiFi unit as who would have expected the home internet to be slow on the first day of virtual class? Thanks to my colleague Frank Pyrtle whose lighting I asked about during a meeting, I now also use a ring light instead of having to cart larger studio lights around the house. Some useful tips on upping your videoconferencing game can be found at this link.

I like Zoom for virtual meetings, and have added on webinar features at times to better control the audience. I am learning to integrate more interactive icebreakers thanks to the NRT Strong Coasts Research Specialist Mrs. Heather Johnson. Since March I hosted a Saturday webinar on COVID19, participated in numerous others, and hosted a virtual birthday party for my good friend Saran with live performances, a DJ, and an artist. Highly recommend Big Head Cartoon.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The first #COVID19allhandsondeck panel that I facilitated featured a friend who is a healthcare worker in California and one of her past professors at San Francisco State University, Professor Grace Yoo. Grace had been sending my friend cloth coverings to go over her N95 masks, and was doing this with the Auntie Sewing Squad (ASS, Folx sewing masks to protect against COVID-19). She convinced me to buy a sewing machine, start making masks, and join their FB group, something started by actress and comedian Kristina Wong. By the time I saw Grace’s posts on there asking why her threads were bunching up, I was already in their Friday night Zoom sessions with my new machine asking how to backstitch. Based in California, the group was coordinating mask making materials, and mask makers, and taking donation requests for frontline workers, and vulnerable communities like homeless shelters, prisoners etc.. To the Navajo Nation they sent a rental van stocked with sewing machines and materials in addition to actual masks.

Being an avid Twitter follower of Prof. Linsey Marr and Prof. Shelly Miller, I went down the researcher rabbit hole vs seamstress, looking for the most appropriate material to use, and the design with the best seal/fit. The University of Florida (UF) shared a design using Halyard H600, a material commonly used in hospitals for sterilizing tools. It could be sterilized through autoclaving, and reused if one had access to that machine. Or it could be left for a few days in a paper bag and reused just like what some medical facilities were asking staff to do with N95s since they were low on stock. The material, like elastic and thread at the time, was back ordered. Some three months or so later, I have made a little dent in the ~800 masks I can get from the material I ordered. UF has since filed a patent on the mask, and Dr. Yang Wang, an assistant professor of Civil Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Missouri Science and Technology (MS&T) has found that two layers of the cheaper Halyard H500 works just as well at filtering virus sized particles as two layers of the Halyard H600.

Social media connections are fascinating, and this one sounds almost like an over the fence she seh he seh story. You see, past AEESP President Professor Joel Burken posted that MS&T faculty were testing mask making materials for filtration efficiency. Another ASS member, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Riverside, and I would soon send samples of materials to their labs where one of the graduate students who works with Yang, Weixing Hao, would test them, and post the results in a google doc, along with links to the material tested. By now I was also on a roll with materials, buying the last set of ToolBox Shop towels from a farm store 45 minutes from my house (immediately following the press coverage that they worked better than cotton), bamboo diaper liners and cleaners thinking they were safer to breathe through, various air filters, and microfiber cloths. These are all neatly packed away in a drawer though a recent post by Yang’s group shows that after 10 wash cycles the microfiber was still as efficient as new at filtering particles of 0.3 micron, the size most difficult to remove.

I was a little obsessed with something that Prof. Linsey Marr said way back when this all started. It had to do with the seal of the mask. In the video I followed to make the UF mask, the presenter used a fit test, and ended up using tape around hers to seal properly. Thanks to a Zoom design lab with Michael Lee Poy in Trinidad and Tobago, I added foam to my masks and that helped with the seal. My test is usually that my glasses don’t fog, and my cheeks are seriously pinched by the mask. This all works in theory until you have to go to the doctor, something I did 4 times in June, and have to walk on a treadmill for a stress test, wincing each time one of the staff passes, surgical mask hanging on chin.

Michael recommended that I design an insert for my homemade masks, and I have supplied some of our graduate students as well as friends. They also get face shields if their work involves potential splashes. For the face shields I followed a design from John’s Hopkins, except I now use window sealer instead of foam and glue (Click here for a list of materials used). The elastic band tends to be backordered alot. USF’s Medical School Dean Charley Lockwood, and faculty members Drs. Summer Decker and Jonathan Ford, lit the fire on that one on March 22nd. That Sunday Jonathan was at the hardware store buying tacks, transparency paper, and window sealer. About the finished product sitting oddly on Jonathan’s head, Dean Lockwood remarked that it looked wonderful and thanked him for his ingenuity. I should mention that that same team is credited with 3-D printed Nasal Swabs that are now being mass produced around the US. USF’s College of Engineering ramped up production for face shields, and though I donated foam and elastic early on when their bulk orders had not arrived, I kept my stash of polycarbonate sheets ordered from Total Plastics in Tampa (still shipped from Baltimore). Ever so often I buy some window sealer, and make a few.

Food and Nutrition. Dried Mallow, also known as Mulukhia, Mlokia, Melokhia, Egyptian Spinach Leaves for Cooking; Mullein Leaf Cut & Sifted, Organic Mullein Leaf Dried, Nature’s Way Sambucus Elderberry Gummies, Herbal Supplements with Vitamin C and Zinc, Vitamin D, Soursop leaves. Thanks to friends on social media I can eat dried leaves for the next two years. Fatuma from Liberia posted about Mallow, calling on her African roots to think back to what was used to boost immune systems and strengthen lungs. Two huge boxes arrived, and I am yet to cook as it’s all in Arabic. Ulele said she heard Mullein helps the lungs, and that also arrived in big bags. And, so the list went with the exception of soursop leaves — already knew that people used those for cancer, and I bought some simply because the person advertising them did so with an eight pack on display (link here if you’re ever looking for pricey Caribbean fruit). And link here if you’re looking for affordable fresh produce in Tampa.

My care box prepared for a friend who had COVID-19. Yet to mail.

By the first week of April I was sharing pics of my plants. Beets, okra, beans, mint, lemongrass, hot pepper, moringa to name a few. To this day I’ve produced only herbs unlike so many of my friends online chomping down on their homegrown produce. To get rid of the miter bug destroying the beans, I tried a neem oil spray, then soapy water, diatomaceous earth, then a neem plant, then hot pepper and cinnamon, and now am watching the marigolds grow. Another #COVID19allhandsondeck session is needed with Alpha Sennon, Agriman, Founder and Executive Director of Whyfarm, and Anandi Premlall, International Agroecological Educator and Grower.

Gadgets. If I were to list gadgets from this time they would include digital thermometer, air purifier, CO2 sensor to measure whether air purifier is putting me to sleep, hygrometer, and all of the apps to go with these, including one called “premom.” Turns out thermometer apps were providing useful temperature data that could be used to identify COVID-19 hot spots. Now, I had read about the impact COVID-19 would have on keeping people away from medical care, and kept postponing my doctor’s visits. I even found myself one evening doing the downward dog, followed by a finger on my phone’s camera, reading my BMP and oxygen levels with the “pulse oximter” app — all to avoid going to the emergency room. The phone very quickly was transforming into what Prof. Gerard Cote and his PathsUp Team calls “lab-in-your-palm.” Interestingly, there is also a company 3D printing face masks frames for people using a scan of your face to tailor the fit. That gave me pause, and I decided to stick with sewing my own. Always in my mind is how one may use a good cause to gather lots of data for machine learning.

On March 21st, Prof. Shelly Miller appeared on a panel, “HVAC and COVID19: An Education on the Indoor Air/Virus Relationship.” By March 24th I had purchased an air purifier developed by a colleague at USF, Prof. Goswami, that includes a process that potentially converts organic materials, viruses included, to CO2 and water. Responding to my tweet that this purifier really made me sleep, and it could be the white noise, Prof. Miller offered that it could be producing CO2 and knocking me out. By the first week of April, the blue light from the newly purchased indoor air quality monitor defeated the deep slumber with the purifier. Due to the light, I never completed the monitoring, but will surely do. For now, I continue to use my Molekule.

For those who do wish an air purifier to filter COVID-19 virus, Dean Richard Corsi tweeted about this, emphasizing a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter is efficient. They also make good material to insert between two layers of a cloth mask give and take scratches trying to open them. MPR, MERV — pay attention to these numbers as they determine how effective the material will be to remove COVID-19 virus, and different stores label things differently.

Just as valuable for schools is this document, “20 QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SENDING YOUR KIDS BACK TO SCHOOL. For Hillsborough County Public Schools, in 2018 residents voted for a half-penny sales tax. Without it, the district’s website says, “our students would face a future in aging, crowded schools. It would also mean increasing the amount spent on debt as we borrow money to deal with basic needs such as urgent air conditioning and roof repairs, reducing the amount available over the long term for maintenance at existing schools.” The website also says that AC systems will take a while to upgrade, and cannot be done in 1 to 2 years.

Exercise. The realization four months later that strapping your phone to your chest versus holding it in your hand while walking reduces the miles clocked likely soured my mood last week along with the dreary, rainy days. I did buy a set of bands thanks to a Zoom exercise class that Dr. Joniqua Howard holds multiple times a week. When she was a graduate student she and the other students in my research group gifted me a coupon for a trainer. I did not take the hint then. Pretty early in March, she organized us online. There I was with all of these USF PhD alumni in her sister circle. I lasted a few sessions, and have to find my way back.

educate.engage.enhance. Environmental Engineer from Guyanese. Professor at USF. Coral restorer supporter. Afro-Caribbean American. All views are my own.

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