The masks arrived in the thousands, a gift sorely needed as Massachusetts healthcare workers brace for the onslaught of patients still to come.
But as the staff at Tufts Medical Center began to sift through the donated medical masks, they found, to their dismay, that the aged rubber bands that secured the masks to the face disintegrated as they stretched. With no way to fit the N95 masks snugly around the face, the 6,095 donated masks were practically useless.
Or were they?
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lee, an International Security Studies Program military fellow at The Fletcher School, had just joined the medical center’s emergency operations team as a volunteer advisor to leverage the skills he’d developed during his military career to help Tufts University prepare for the coronavirus outbreak. When he heard about the masks, Lee knew who to call.
A week earlier, as The Fletcher School and the rest of the Tufts University community prepared to head into a spring break recess from which they would not return to in-person classes, Fletcher MALD candidate Amanda Schwartz (F20) had put out a call for volunteers to organize a COVID-19 student task force.
By the end of the week, Schwartz and fellow task force volunteer Fletcher MALD candidate Abigail Kukura (F21), had organized a team of engineers from Tufts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, they’d developed a set of protype fixes for the masks, secured a clean room at the Tufts Dental School, and gone to work with a team of more than 30 volunteers.
In just three days, they’ve already repaired more than 1,500 of the 6,000 masks. Schwartz is hoping to make their prototypes and assembly system open source in the coming days to aid similar operations across the United States.
“The mask, as a case study, is so fascinating to watch. A couple of Fletcher students flock to a problem and find their way through it so that they can make a real substantive impact on the healthcare workers on the frontlines of this,” said Abigail Linnington, a former Army colonel and professor of practice at The Fletcher School. Linnington is teaching a course on grand strategy this semester that has brought together many of the military fellows and student volunteers engaged in a university-wide COVID-19 response effort.
“I would take any one of these people with me into a difficult situation, be it a bureaucratic situation or a conflict zone. They just figure out how to solve the problem,” Linnington said. “They found a way to connect the dots between the people who wanted to help, the people who had the skills … there are orders of magnitude more masks than the hospital had when this week started. That’s because of these Fletcher and Tufts students. It’s a big deal.”
The mask effort is just one piece of a cross-community effort organized in tandem by The Fletcher School military fellows and a veritable army of student volunteers who are working with Tufts University. The task force is not only fixing masks but also working with the university to develop crisis communications, coordinate short- and long-term strategic planning, deliver meals to sick students in isolation, and turn university facilities into a field hospital to aid Boston area hospitals should they begin to overflow with COVID-19 patients in the weeks and months to come.
The surge of aid and coordination follows Tufts University President Anthony Monaco’s pledge to use the university's resources to join the fight against the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic spreads across the United States and the world.
For their part, Fletcher’s International Security Studies Program military fellows like Lee have ample practice responding to crises and bring their unique skillset to planning for the pandemic response because of their experiences in, and adjacent to, combat zones where nothing is certain.
“Not every day is filled with crisis, but you just get used to dealing with crises,” Linnington said. “You’re constantly evaluating what could happen, what could go wrong … Frankly, I think what the military fellows helped with was contingency planning or scenario planning. They have that down.”
Acting as crisis-action advisers across numerous university emergency response teams, The Fletcher School’s military fellows are working to enhance supply and communication chains, and troubleshoot problems that might arise in the following months and even years.
U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and ISSP military fellow Susan Gannon is another member of the team working with the Tufts Medical Center and volunteers to organize important data so the group can think “over the horizon.”
“The situation is evolving so quickly that it takes a lot of brainpower to sit down and think ahead,” Gannon said. “That’s something we know and understand."
For members of the military, it's just another day on the job, said U.S. Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Michael Manning. The student volunteers, he said, have done something else.
“The part that I think is really, really special, that I think is really a manifestation of Tufts University values and certainly Fletcher School values, is the work the student volunteers have done,” Manning said. “I’ve been in the Army 22 years. Our culture demands that in something like this, we participate. The student volunteers though, they come from - literally and figuratively - all over the place. And everybody is working together.”
In addition to the mask project, Schwartz has continued coordinating volunteer efforts on various projects. Kukura, meanwhile, has taken the lead working with Tufts Dining Services to make sure meals are delivered safely to students who are sick or in self-isolation. Kukura took on that project after being approached by the military fellows after one of the last in-person meetings of Linnington’s strategy class.
“Why me? I have no military background. The only thing I had done was say I wanted to be involved in this Fletcher student coronavirus task force,” Kukura said. “If the military fellows trusted me to do something, even if I didn’t know how, it felt like under their leadership we could make a difference together.”
Working together has even extended into The Fletcher School classroom. The military fellows like Manning and Lee and student volunteers like Schwartz and Kukura have, under Linnington’s guidance, planned out their strategic response and presented their results to the rest of the class—even as they’ve moved from the physical classroom to the virtual.
“You can learn so much in the classroom, but it’s really how you apply those things in the real world that’s going to stick with everyone after Fletcher. To have an opportunity to tie things we’re learning in the classroom to real world situations and see what sticks I think is really powerful, especially in a time where it’s so hard to focus on anything that isn’t related to [the pandemic],” Kukura said. “It shows the power of smart people putting their heads together and all the learning that happens outside of the classroom at Fletcher. It’s certainly not the traditional semester at Fletcher, in any sense, but I think it’s rather unique to Fletcher to be able to do something like this.”
Manning, too, said the opportunity is unique, and not just in the application of learning or skills. The response to this crisis demonstrates something more about leadership and values, he said.
“You’ve got espoused values—this is who we say we are—and you’ve got values in use. And there’s beautiful alignment in that,” Manning said. “At Fletcher, people seem to genuinely care about each other. They’re encouraged to care about each other. There’s a lot of group work that takes place and people are always trying to backstop and take care of each other. The culture is very alive that way, so the kind of work the volunteers have done is just a natural manifestation of those values in use.”