Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020
Chris Melton enjoys identifying a need and finding solutions. That’s exactly what he did when he realized Virginia Commonwealth University staff, faculty and students returning to campus would need their own personal protective equipment supply kits.
“There was a big population coming back with a lot of question marks on what they were coming back to. We wanted to provide some level of comfort for them and their families,” said Melton, director of support services for VCU Facilities Management.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Melton enlisted the help of most of the facilities management team and created an assembly line in the department’s warehouse to bottle, label and put together 7,000 starter kits to be distributed throughout VCU — mainly on the MCV campus — for staff, faculty and students to use this summer.
“As we would bottle and put the masks in the kits, we also added cards with instructions,” Melton said. “We were able to start distributing the starter kits in late May to make it a safer environment for people to come back to. We created a special COVID-19 portal where we could distribute the kits.”
Those starter kits helped VCU and VCU Health in the early weeks and months of the pandemic. To meet the needs of students, faculty and staff returning in the fall, Melton partnered with a vendor for larger-scale distribution. The first of those kits arrived in July. The student kits contain 8 ounces of hand sanitizer plus an empty bottle and 16 ounces of disinfectant along with a reusable black cotton mask.
Return to campus coordinators can request kits through the COVID-19 portal for staff, faculty and student workers and athletes on both campuses. Students living in residence halls will receive their kit on move-in day. Kits for nonresidential students will be distributed through pick-up events on campus.
Making kits in-house
When COVID-19 first surfaced, Melton started working with vendors to secure personal protective equipment for technicians in VCU Facilities Management. In the following weeks, one vendor informed Melton that it could provide kits with N95 masks included.
“We bought them and handed them out and then donated a few thousand of the kits to VCU Health System,” Melton said.
Though he originally was purchasing kits, Melton quickly realized a large quantity of starter kits had to be made in-house. The vendor he was working with couldn’t deliver all the kits before the end of July and supplies of materials were scarce.
“That signaled to me that I needed to do this in two phases,” he said. “We had access to hand sanitizer in bulk and disinfectant in concentrated form and we were working with a local manufacturer for the masks.”
Melton was able to purchase 55-gallon drums of alcohol-based hand sanitizer from Reservoir Distillery in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition, and used the drums to fill individual bottles of hand sanitizer for the starter kits. He reached out to Shockoe Atelier, an apparel company, to help make masks. Shockoe Atelier had previously manufactured masks for VCU Health.
“We chose a design for reusable black cloth masks that was originally designed by VCU Health. We had to get the masks licensed,” Melton said. “The vendor was able to make them in just three weeks.”
‘An incredible undertaking’
Melton stopped producing starter kits when the larger vendor supply arrived. Jessica Laux, director of risk management in the Department of Safety and Risk Management, has been impressed with what Melton and his team have accomplished, both to coordinate the ordering of vendor-supplied kits and to create the starter kits in-house in the early weeks and months of the pandemic.
“They were able to assemble, procure and distribute the kits very efficiently. They took a big ask and made it look easier than it is,” Laux said. “They were the right people to take on that responsibility.”
Laux and university planner Jeff Eastman co-chair the return to campus coordinator group. The ability to provide students, faculty and staff with personal protective equipment is a key part of bringing the VCU community back safely,” Eastman said.
“It’s an incredible undertaking to safely return the VCU community to campus, and the execution by [Melton] and his team and all those who have been brought in to help has been heroic,” he said.
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to the VCU News newsletter at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday.