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Massive effort goes on to keep VT campus safe, one mask at a time

In its ongoing effort to keep the VT campus safe, university procurement so far has bought more than 600,000 disposable masks and 50,000 cloth masks and close to 30,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 20,000 bottles of disinfectant spray. More than 2,300 t

Since the pandemic began, Virginia Tech has been stocking up on necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for the campus community, even in the midst of national and global shortages. Come August, when faculty, staff and students return to campus, the university will be ready.

Mary Helmick, director of procurement for Virginia Tech, leads the university’s PPE ordering and distribution plans. She said recently that very early in the pandemic, like most consumers, the university experienced shortages of common protective supplies and equipment in the supply chain nationally and globally. In those first weeks, VT procurement called university departments to see what they had in their inventories. They asked those departments to consider volunteering their PPE products to a centralized emergency stockpile. The campus responded, Helmick said, and that initial stockpiling of PPE got the university through the first few weeks.

In late March, the university’s administration supported a decision to actively start purchasing PPE in volume as an early preparation for future and subsequent phases of operations. Since then, according to Helmick, the university has purchased more than 600,000 disposable surgical masks and more than 50,000 cloth masks.

“We’ve acquired close to 30,000 bottles of individual hand sanitizer and 20,000 bottles of disinfectant spray,” Helmick said. “Over 2,300 additional touchless hand sanitizers units were also ordered and installed across the campus.

“We continue to acquire certified N95 [masks] for lab operations, although they are among the hardest products to acquire as they are needed in the medical facilities as a priority throughout the country.

“I have to say the inventory numbers were staggering when we started projecting what we needed in March,” the procurement director said. “Then that number grew as we reached out to the departments and asked them to submit to us what they thought they may need.”

In addition to the N95/KN95 masks needed for normal lab operations, Helmick said the university has also had difficulty acquiring nitrile gloves.

“We use hundreds of thousands of gloves here at Virginia Tech in a nonpandemic situation, and right now, they’re very hard to come by,” she said. “Medical facilities are experiencing shortages and it’s hard from a higher-ed perspective to get our hands on large quantities. We’ve been accumulating them as we could find them. We have an ample quantity, and we’ll continue to press hard to make sure that we’re back-filling that inventory.”

The university has not been so successful in acquiring disinfectant wipes. Helmick conceded they have “all but abandoned[ed] our efforts to acquire disinfectant wipes, as they continue to be in very short supply. We increased the volume of disinfectant spray bottles purchased to compensate for the lack of availability in disinfectant wipes.”

The PPE is available for whoever may need it to stay safe as they’re doing business or coming to class or teaching class or just doing normal operations of the university,” the procurement boss said. “This PPE inventory is here to protect all that are affiliated with the university. So that would include faculty, staff, and students here on our Blacksburg campus as well as at university facilities across the commonwealth.”

As for acquiring PPE, Helmick said, “Individual university departments can go on HokieMart. They place requests for PPE through an internal service request form in that system. It goes through all the normal approval processes and electronically transfers to the surplus warehouse where the product is picked and prepared for pickup. The university is handling the cost of the acquisition and distribution of PPE centrally to lessen the burden on the departments.”

To maximize the supply of PPE, Helmick said, “All university community members should bring their own cloth face covering when coming to campus. Students with specific PPE needs or questions may reach out to Hokie Wellness by emailing or calling (540) 231-2233. Residential students may also connect with their resident advisors. Every effort will be made to ensure PPE is available for students and employees.”

The goal of what has been a massive effort requiring intense coordination is to provide the safest environment possible when faculty, staff and students return to campus in August. That goal is being achieved one mask at a time.




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