There was one thing about the White House’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic that was clear from the beginning. The investigative journalism that would eventually uncover what happened behind closed doors in January, February and March would reveal devastating evidence of how epically this administration mishandled it. The reports came sooner rather than later, as early as April 4th in the Washington Post and April 11th for the New York Times. Both landmark articles revealed historic failures approaching humanitarian crisis proportions, focused on the first 70 days. Taken together, they read like “Part 1” of the kind of story, to paraphrase David Bowie, about to be writ again. And again and again. After reading them, the takeaways were not that day 71 was somehow better than day 1. Today is roughly day 140, and this administration’s response has only grown exponentially more precarious to our country’s (and all countries’) collective health.

In absence of an articulable, coherent federal plan to stave off COVID-19, we are living through the consequences of a President not doing the two things to stop more Americans from dying by the thousands a day: mass manufacture both testing and PPE. These two solutions have remained unchanged for months: tests and PPE. You can be out of the prediction business, yet still know the same will go for the next 70 days, come Day 280.

The DPA (Defense Production Act) is the exact kind of wartime mobilization needed as a last best hope for getting more Americans back to work and fixing this problem (a win-win situation). In absence of him fully implementing the DPA, doctors and nurses are caught in a horrifically preventable cycle. Though this disturbing feedback loop doesn’t end with health care workers, they end up bearing the brunt.

This is the same story we’ve seen play out for months: If hospitals don’t have an ongoing supply of proper protective gear, health care employees are likelier to get sick and die. If meatpacking and poultry plants don’t have enough PPE, factory workers are more vulnerable to transmitting the disease to each other. If nursing home staff lack basic protection, the greater the chances the infection will ravage elderly residents’ immune systems. All the while, each of those working Americans become likelier to bring the virus home to their families. Writ again and again. Without the common sense solution of a constantly replenished supply of protective gear, there is no flattening the curve, only extending it indefinitely.

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As dystopian as it sounds, it would appear our government has made the nihilistic choice to do nothing substantive to protect and save American lives. The decision they do have seem to have made is to pretend Governors and Mayors are solely responsible for the health, and ultimately fate of each states’ respective citizens. The calculation seems that if the administration doesn’t do anything construed as taking responsibility, they can never be blamed. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean a different kind of Cavalry isn’t coming.

Since the President won’t initiate the kind of wartime mobilization needed to ensure an unceasing oversupply of PPE, we’ve come to see the next best thing. As it came into focus that our government wasn’t coming to save us, countless everyday Americans have spontaneously stepped up to save each other. A nationwide, grassroots patchwork of makers, entrepreneurs, small business owners and citizens at home with sewing machines has sprung up. There may not (yet) be an umbrella organization overseeing the countless number of groups and organizations sewing masks, manufacturing 3D-printed face shields or producing protective gowns, but the impact has been awe-inspiring and literally lifesaving.

A coalition of both everyday people and businesses has formed to find answers to the overwhelming shortage of PPE in New York.

“Once the pandemic broke out, we saw the need for PPE and were hearing from all the hospitals that they were lacking these critical resources for frontline medical workers.”

NYCEDC (New York City Economic Development Corporation), working with Mayor de Blasio’s office, has the kind of flexibility that’s allowed them to pivot and aid the city’s COVID-19 response. In the few months since the pandemic hit, NYCEDC has undertaken numerous initiatives to assist producing, procuring and distributing PPE, including masks, face shields, surgical gowns, bridge ventilators and test kits. Early on, the agency positioned itself as a first point of contact for anyone wanting to help, donate or collaborate. So far, they’ve received over 3,100 responses. Chris Singleton, Senior Project Manager for NYCEDC, calculated the growing tally of face shields at 1.6 million, with another 1.9 million by end of May. Medical gown production is up to 500,000 units a week, spread across eight local manufacturers.

“Once the pandemic broke out,” Singleton said, “we saw the need for PPE and were hearing from all the hospitals that they were lacking these critical resources for frontline medical workers. So we reached out to the connections we have throughout various industries in the city to see who could reconfigure their production models to make gowns, face shields, and now bridge ventilators; everything we were hearing there was a dire need for.”

On May 6th, de Blasio announced local manufacturers would ramp up production to create 50,000 COVID-19 test kits per week. In only three weeks, NYCEDC, working with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H) and manufacturer Print Parts created a local supply chain producing nasal swabs for testing. While figuring out how to navigate this new role of coordinating PPE and test kits in real time, they quickly discovered that the urgency of manufacturing and procurement would need a streamlined receiving and delivering system. Which is what led them to Bill Thayer, Chief Logistics Officer for Century 21 Retail Stores.

“It took all of five seconds for them to say, ‘We lease the trucks, we have the buildings. It’s just paying for fuel and tolls…It’s the right thing to do. Do it’”

“I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about people that were pulling together,” Thayer explained, “and I said ‘we could do that’”. He was soon in touch with NYCEDC and Singleton who said, “We’ve seen a few companies step up on the logistics side because the supply chain is shaken up. You have serious production going on throughout the city right now and you have to figure out how to move that around quickly and efficiently. Century 21 has been incredible. They’ve offered up their fleet of trucks and labor, as well. Pro bono. Not only moving goods once produced, but also helping move raw materials to the facilities that sprang up as well,”. On top of that, “they’ve literally not asked for anything.”

Century 21’s flagship store, New York City

Century 21’s flagship store was (and still is) located in lower Manhattan, in the heart of the World Trade Center. “The company was almost taken out on 9.11,” Thayer said. “After, it happened, the city of New York came to our owners and asked, ‘what can we do?’ So when this started and you could see all the horrible things happening…I went to our owners (including CEO Raymond Gindi) and said, ‘I’d like to be able to do this’. It took all of five seconds for them to say, ‘We lease the trucks, we have the buildings. It’s just paying for fuel and tolls…It’s the right thing to do. Do it’.”

Century 21 had the exact arsenal of tools needed to position them for helping amidst a pandemic: 4 box trucks, 13 tractors / cabs and 40 trailers, all sitting idle. With Pete Inchausti, Century’s GM of transportation, and five crucial truck drivers, the company created a new niche. The other invaluable addition is their satellite of four buildings / distribution centers at the Secaucus, New Jersey headquarters, now able to stage, store and deliver PPE. Thayer’s small army of trucks and drivers haven’t been limited to PPE as Century 21 began donating their own surplus; six pallets of 5,000 water bottles, 1,000 scarves now designated makeshift non-medical facemasks and 9000 pieces of Easter candy for the kids of Secaucus.

“You have stuff spoiling in a food depot and it needs to go to a food bank? We’ll put a truck on the street, we’ll get the people who’ll move it,” Thayer said. “Right now, if I can find those eight pallets of vegetables that are not gonna be thrown away as mulch and can go to a food bank, that’s what I’m focused on.”

NYCEDC soon put Thayer in touch with Sam Payrovi, owner of Consortium, an event space turned face shield factory in the Meatpacking District. “Logistics,” Thayer outlined, “is about ‘do you have five steps, can you get it down to one?’” This came in handy when a surplus of Canadian raw materials suddenly arrived in Connecticut and needed to get to New York to make face shields. “Twelve tons of plastic? Done. Bring it to my buildings. It’s much easier for me to break it, strip, it deliver it.” On top of that, when Consortium ended up with more face shields than they have room for, those four Century 21 buildings became pop-up storage.

Thayer is keenly aware of the uncharted territory of this moment, “we’re making this up as we go”. Some team members in his division have passed away as a result of coronavirus. The way he described his connection to his colleagues could just as easily have been his relationship to the city, “It’s about family, it’s an organization that says how can you keep yourself and keep others safe. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

“Everybody had great capabilities and everybody did everything at the same time”

Charles Boyce’s company Boyce Technologies had never built bridge ventilators. Alongside several partner groups working with NYCEDC, they delivered a finished product in about three weeks, a process that would normally take months. “About a month ago, driving to work, I realized this ventilator issue wasn’t going to be solved,” Boyce said. Hours later, “I got my engineers together and said, ‘We’re gonna build ventilators’”.

This was around the time Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo were giving daily press conferences, sounding the alarm on the desperation for ventilators which the federal government simply wasn’t providing in adequate numbers. While they (and every other Governor and countless Mayors) scrambled for the machines in what Cuomo described as, “like being on eBay with 50 other states [and FEMA] bidding on a ventilator” and Chicago Governor J.B. Pritzker likened to “the wild west”, the idea of using bridge ventilators became an overwhelmingly popular stopgap.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio discuss the state and city’s preparedness for the spread of the coronavirus, Monday, March 2, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Although they can’t replace conventional ventilators, they can be deployed to ventilator functionality in emergency situations when no other options are available. Because the machinery isn’t as complex, they could be built faster and (relatively) cheaper. In other words, the ideal project for an entrepreneur with an engineering background whose unofficial motto is “I only like to do things other people don’t want to or maybe can’t.”

Boyce Technologies is a 150-employee kind of one-stop shopping for clients like the city’s MTA. They engineer, design and manufacture mass transit security and communications equipment, emergency response systems and customer information display systems. What makes them unique is an ability to execute the kinds of projects that can be ideated, designed and built under one roof. Not unlike the fortuitous infrastructure that allowed Century 21 to transition into a pandemic-ready operation, Boyce Technologies re-purposed their 100,000-square-foot facility, one that combined engineering and production with robots, a clean room, and circuitry and software design departments.

The same day Boyce decided to get into the ventilator business, he got a call from Scott Cohen, co-founder of Newlab (a technology center for start-ups and researchers) with the same idea. “He asked if I would join him in building ventilators and I thought, ‘this is really fortuitous’.” Cohen (who would go on to reach out to his contacts at NYCEDC) also brought on 10XBeta, a product design and development company. Once they all started working on designs, a prototype took form in a matter of days. “What brought us together was a team at MIT. They were doing a lot of research while we were working on a DFM (design for manufacturability)”. MIT’s previous work on the Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent) Project was both essential and the inspiration for the final product.

Once the city confirmed interest in purchasing 3,000 of the bridge ventilators, the collaboration went into overdrive. Boyce remembers, “we had a lot of complementary teams working at an unprecedented level: scientists and doctors from MIT working as hard as they could, all the resources at Newlab, 10XBeta who are experts in design, and we’re an engineering firm with some of the most capable production tools. Everybody had great capabilities and everybody did everything at the same time. We were manufacturing as fast as we were inventing. That’s how you take a 6-month project and do it in less than 30 days.”

The Spiro Wave emergency ventilator developed in response to the ventilator shortage

The FDA approved the new device, the Spiro Wave, to be used on patients under an expedited process called the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Boyce anticipates continuing working on additional features in conjunction with the FDA, with the goal of receiving a 510K approval, thereby allowing the unit to transcend the EUA and become a new category of medical equipment.

Incredibly, bridge ventilators were not the first pandemic-related product Boyce’s company had built in-house in the last few months. Weeks before that, they’d already begun making face shields, eventually turning out the materials to create 50,000. Boyce soon decided they were ready to move on in order to work on the kind of solutions that hadn’t been solved yet.

He’s now ramping up production on his third post-pandemic endeavor: cup-shaped N95 masks. Except, since Boyce prefers to create something different, rather than just build the mask, this project will be a “fully automatic machine that can put fabric in and a masked box comes out.” He further described the project as having the ability to “create a mask-making machine using robots”. He anticipates this, like the face shields and the bridge ventilators before them, can be completed in under 30 days.

Boyce has invested his own money into the research and development for all of these devices to the tune of millions of dollars. He considers it his donation to New York. Although he may recoup some of the money and possibly break even on these several endeavors, that was never the point. As he put it, “We didn’t profit from the 3,000 ventilators from the city, but they sold for $3300 a piece and that’s where we’ll get [some of] our engineering and development money back”.

Boyce elaborated on the day he realized he was going to build what the government never would. “It came from that ride to work, those very dark days over a month ago.” He was getting over what he thinks may have been coronavirus. “I was very emotional, very sick, but couldn’t get tested.” He looks at the work he’s been doing these last few months as “a calling, a responsibility. We had to do it.”

“I fear that we’re gonna just get right back into a cycle,” he said. “The virus didn’t go anywhere. All we did was separate. And just as anyone could have predicted, it started to flatten. And as soon as we start to un-separate, or not have the right PPE, then the numbers are just gonna go right back. It’s such simple math, and until we have a vaccine, cure or treatment, this is just something we live with.”

Though this is something we’ll be living with for awhile, Boyce knows none of us have any idea what will be asked of us in the months ahead, least of all problem solvers like him. As he begins work on his third pandemic-related invention in as many months, he asked, “It went from shields to ventilators and now to mask-making machines…What’s next, maybe there’s a hundred out there and this is just the beginning?”

Brent Korson
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Brent Korson is a writer / documentary producer living in NYC whose work runs the gamut from environmental justice to spotlighting corruption. His production experience includes projects for PBS, NBC, Nat Geo, The History Channel, MoveOn.org, The Sundance Channel and Pennebaker Hegedus films. Editorial and writing experience includes work with Interview, Time Out NY and AV Network and Zoetrope: All Story. He’s known for his passion towards climate-related issues, interest in seeing journalism and news continually course correct itself and belief that Damon Lindelof is the premiere storyteller of our times.