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The second line of defense

  • A white jigsaw puzzle against a blue background with one piece missing, but nearby

    The second line of defense

    A new initiative fills gaps created by COVID-19

Amidst global pandemic, University of Minnesota faculty and external partners have united to establish the University COVID Action Network (U-CAN). Reverberations from this disruption affect all of us—many necessary tasks that were previously routine are now harder to execute, such as accessing food, teaching students, navigating employment, and safely maintaining isolation. But these things don’t necessarily require medical professionals’ expertise, which is where U-CAN can help.

Led by the Strategic Partnerships and Research Collaborative (SPARC), U-CAN was the brainchild of an emerging One Health Innovation Lab at the University, which is driven by faculty at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). The new program welcomes requests for help and mobilizes teams of volunteers both large and small to respond. Requests come to U-CAN through a form on their website or through a network of university, community, and government partners in Minnesota and beyond. 

The program’s responses have already ranged widely, including working with a mother of undergraduates concerned about online learning policies, collaborating with tribal partners looking to convert a pole barn to a winter greenhouse, recruiting volunteers to sew masks and fold mask decontamination boxes from the School of Design, and more. Recently, U-CAN assisted a start-up company out of California in its effort to match Minnesota’s elderly and immunocompromised with a system for accessing groceries. So far, 27 requests have been received and responded to in total. 

In a big emergency like this, people are so strapped and busy trying to deal with the emergency that certain things just don’t get done, so we are here to help.

Katey Pelican, DVM, PhD

“We are all about channeling the energy and expertise at the University in directions that are most helpful,” says Katey Pelican, DVM, PhD, co-director of SPARC and associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine (VPM), who acts as managing director of U-CAN. “The medical community is the front line, and we’re the second line of defense. In a big emergency like this, people are so strapped and busy trying to deal with the emergency that certain things just don’t get done, so we are here to help.”

Pelican is also collaborating on this effort with Dominic Travis, DVM, MS, who serves as co-lead of the One Health division within the VPM. Further support comes for U-CAN from the Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency in the CVM’s Center for Animal Health and Food Safety. 

Pelican and Travis have experience tackling large outbreaks in the world of veterinary public health. “It is difficult to be on the front lines AND organize and mobilize backup,” Travis says. “While clinical backup is in place, the vast resources in human capital beyond clinical areas and associated research is not. I’m interested in being useful for the marathon parts of this.”

These are people from all over the U, a big diversity of people who want to help the best they can. They want to put the skills they have toward something useful.

Katey Pelican, DVM, PhD

Volunteers are responding with enthusiasm. “It’s incredible,” Pelican says. “These are people from all over the U, a big diversity of people who want to help the best they can. They want to put the skills they have toward something useful.” 

Currently, 500 people from all five system campuses are registered U-CAN volunteers. About 40 percent are graduate and undergraduate students, roughly 30 percent are staff, and the rest are faculty. 

Pelican reports the initiative is building momentum: “It’s growing fast and we get more people signing up every day.” 

“This is an example of the depth and richness of the community here at the U of M,” Travis says. “COVID-19 is giving us reason to come together, but many of us are interested in sustaining this in the ‘Sunrise Plan’ and beyond.”

Current U-CAN projects

Whether you are interested in taking a closer look at what U-CAN is working on, or you'd like to see where you can get involved, peruse the slideshow below to find out more. 

Supporting research with the FAO

U-CAN is connecting with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to find ways to support the research looking at fake news and remedies, and their relationship to cultural practices and beliefs. Some similar research is going on here at the University of Minnesota, so U-CAN will recruit a volunteer team to work with FAO on this matter. 

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Making masks

U-CAN now has more than 40 volunteers sewing masks for UMN workers and community organizations. As the organization finalizes its entirely volunteer-led distribution, it is gearing up to drop off nearly 300 masks. U-CAN has also been working with volunteers who have expertise in hygiene engineering to test various materials for the project's mask production. If you're interested and have expertise in mask production or sewing from patterns, and if you have a sewing machine to help with these masks, join the U-CAN Mask Makers today. Click the button below.

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Social distancing in the workplace

As the U of M embarks on its Sunrise Plan, U-CAN volunteers are working with various departments around the University to support teams responsible for creating and implementing guidance regarding the safest possible practices in the workplace. So far, U-CAN has connected volunteers to a team from the Department of Environmental Health & Safety to gather information related to identifying the best materials and designs for homemade masks. U-CAN has also helped gather information to support CVM lab hibernation planning. Moving forward, U-CAN will collect and link to examples of safety plans for different types of working environments as examples for people to use.

Collaborating with the White Earth Band

Disruptions in the food chain on the White Earth Tribal Reservation is a growing concern. U-CAN is seeking to assemble a team of U-CAN volunteers and UMN partners who are experts in aquaponics, hydroponics, or deep winter greenhouses to conduct a feasibility study as quickly as possible in order to apply for a grant that can fund a food sovereignty program on the Reservation. U-CAN envisions that this team could provide guidance and training to this community to collaborate with them to address their food insecurity concerns.

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Home slaughter guidance

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing supply chain disruptions to the swine industries. Large processors are forced to close their doors. Small butchers and custom exempt slaughterhouses are not able to take on the resulting large volume of animals. Home slaughter can serve as an alternative option to ease the disruption. The Meat Science group at the U is taking the initiative to provide guidance on home slaughter. U-CAN is connecting the communities who need the knowledge with the experts at the U.

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Mask decontamination boxes for frontline workers

The University of Minnesota College of Design’s Fabrication Shops team designed and fabricated cardboard decontamination boxes for University hospital worker masks. U-CAN volunteers stepped up to help assemble over 300 of the laser-cut boxes and tops. 

Helping students return to clinical settings

U-CAN is looking for volunteers to help create or identify training materials as a precursor to students returning to clinical settings. U-CAN's goal is to obtain educational materials on the following topics: infection control and prevention; personal protective equipment; N95 masks; handwashing; respiratory etiquette; isolation and quarantine; high-risk procedures; emotional health, self-care, and vicarious trauma; and communication skills, such as acquiring informed consent and breaking bad news. If you are interested in identifying or creating training materials, click the button below. 

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