If there is something positive to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the extraordinary contribution universities have made to supporting their local communities.
Staff and students have stepped up to answer calls for help from various organisations including the NHS, charities and other community groups who are under increasing pressure because of the unprecedented demand for their services.
COVID-19 is highlighting the important contribution universities make not only to the education of their students, but also to the economy and our society. There are many fantastic examples of the sector’s civic response to this crisis and the Midlands Enterprise Universities’ partner institutions are at the forefront of several of these initiatives.
Personal protective equipment
One of the key areas they are working in is developing and manufacturing PPE (personal protective equipment) for frontline medical staff. Many hospitals are suffering from an acute shortage of PPE and in response the University of Lincoln has been manufacturing safety visors and other safety equipment which can be deployed at Lincoln County Hospital. Staff are also working up plans to support the production of ventilators for very sick patients by 3D printing parts for machines.
The University of Derby has also provided PPE which was to have been used by students at the St Helena campus in Chesterfield to its local hospital. Technicians from the university’s College of Health and Social Care have collected boxes of medical gloves, aprons, wipes, cleaning materials and alcohol gels, all of which is ordinarily used for teaching student nurses and allied healthcare professionals in Chesterfield.
Easing staffing shortages
The NHS is also facing a staffing challenge with many doctors and nurses on sick leave or self-isolating. Students have been helping to fill the void by offering their expertise and a new register has been created at De Montfort University for students and staff who would like to volunteer their time. Already, more than 1,500 student nurses and midwives are on placement with hospitals and care organisations across the East Midlands, medical students are volunteering, and NHS-registered members of staff have rejoined the health service.
DMU has also donated its stock of PPE to the NHS, offered the use of its 3D printers and given over its car park for medical staff to use.
Paramedic students from Coventry University have also headed to the frontline to help ambulance staff tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. About 50 students who have previously worked with West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) on placements have joined up once again to help bolster their numbers while more than 25 PhD students have volunteered to help University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire with COVID-19 testing.
Coventry University has also donated about 400 pairs of safety goggles and 90,000 pairs of gloves to Warwickshire County Council’s public health team for use in care homes, and the university’s health simulation facilities in the Alison Gingell building have been made available for local health trusts to use for training purposes for their staff.
Testing is another key area and many universities, research institutes and companies across Britain are lending their testing equipment to three new hub laboratories which are being set up for the duration of the crisis. NHS staff will be first in line for the new coronavirus (COVID-19) testing programme being developed in collaboration with government and industry.
The University of Wolverhampton’s Research Institute in Healthcare Science has supplied an Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast System PCR machine which has been transported to the new North Hub laboratory at Alderley Park in Cheshire.
The machine uses a technique of testing called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) which is usually used to test for viruses such as Hepatitis C or influenza but is being used in the diagnosis of coronavirus in suspected cases of active infection using samples such as nasal and mouth swabs.
Researchers at Birmingham City University have also been working in this area and have developed a new healthcare tool that applies artificial intelligence technology to improve the accuracy of COVID-19 detection in chest x-rays.
DeTraC, created by computer vision and data scientists Professor Mohamed Gaber and Dr Mohammed Abdelsamea from the School of Computing and Digital Technology, uses machine learning to assess and diagnose using large datasets of images from several hospitals across the world. The technology is now publicly available for the World Health Organisation and the global medical community as an open-source program.
Supporting the community
As well as the NHS, universities are also supporting community groups and organisations who are providing vital, life-saving services to those in desperate need. Nottingham Trent University, for example, has donated all the produce from its vertical farm to help feed the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Chungui Lu and colleagues at the University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences run two vertical farms – glasshouse and ‘shipping containers’ capable of producing natural crops which are more nutritious, have far bigger yields and faster harvest cycles. The protected vertical farming uses a variety of innovative and automated feeding and environmental control systems to create perfect growing conditions all year round. Boxes of pak choi, spinach, swiss chard, lettuce, coriander and basil have been given to Tracy’s Street Kitchen, a small team of chefs who make and distribute food to people living on the streets.
A nursing student from Birmingham City University is also making a difference in her local community by setting up a volunteering group to help vulnerable and elderly people. Katie Dixon, who is studying adult nursing at Birmingham City University, has recruited nearly 1,000 people to help in the Kings Heath community, with another 250 kind-hearted residents awaiting approval to join the ranks.
Meanwhile a criminology professor who teaches at Birmingham City University’s School of Social Sciences has launched a new website to support those cooking on a budget during the coronavirus lockdown.
Professor Elizabeth Yardley is swapping crime and restraining orders for cottage pie and risotto with her ‘Pound Chef’ recipes – all executed for less than £1 per person.
These are just some of the examples of how Midlands Enterprise Universities are responding to the COVID-19 crisis and there are many more highlighting how universities and their communities can meet the challenges and opportunities we face in the 21st century.