The Pandemic Puzzle
South Jersey businesses are beginning to put together the pieces that will give them a clearer picture of what lies ahead.
It’s hard to fathom how much has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic first uprooted our daily lives a little over a month ago. As businesses—and the world—began to make adjustments to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, the new norms of social distancing and sheltering in place became a harsh reality. So, too, did the realization that the economic fallout would be uncertain at best.
Across the country, almost every business is feeling the effect, with small businesses being the hardest hit. To help combat the struggles, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid Relief Economic Security (CARES) Act, a record $2 trillion relief package that provides direct economic assistance to cover both workers and employers.
The good news—most parts of the United States are currently in the process of taking the necessary steps to reopen the stay-at-home orders. Gov. Phil Murphy and other governors from northeastern states—Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island—have formed a pact to work together on an approach to reopening the economies in a safe and responsible way.
While this has no doubt been one of, if not the hardest time in people’s lives, South Jersey has shown resilience. There are countless stories of inspiration, from those on the front line risking their lives to everyday people dropping everything to make masks, face shields, incubation boxes and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to help fill the supply that is continuously dwindling. This community has banded together as it does time and time again.
Happy to Help
When Burlington County received COVID-19 testing equipment and began the process of setting up a testing site in Westampton, officials reached out to Rowan College of Burlington County (RCBC) Health Sciences Dean Karen Montalto asking for volunteers. Some were needed to man the phone center for testing center inquiries and others were needed to conduct the tests on county residents. All wanted to do whatever they could to help.
“[I was] asked what I thought about our [nursing] students volunteering,” Montalto recalls. “I checked with administration first and within a couple of hours of the email sent out, we had an overwhelming response. Close to 100 students responding at 10 or 11 o’clock at night saying they want to volunteer. Many of them already work in the hospitals, are EMTs or work in other capacities as nursing assistants. A lot voiced the same thing—they want to be involved, they want to help.”
“It speaks to the dedication the students have for paying it forward and being able to jump into the front line,” says Michael Cioce, president, RCBC.
Students who were one semester away from graduating were able to volunteer at the call center and students who were one month away from graduating could conduct the tests. Because they received hands-on experience and helped the community, this volunteer opportunity counts as clinical hours toward their schoolwork.
“Our accrediting agencies, The National Council for State Boards and the State Board of Nursing, all put out policy statements saying we can form these partnerships with hospitals, the county or the state, and if students are learning new information and still continuing to meet the objectives by doing this type of this of volunteer work, they will count that as clinical toward meeting coursework for the semester,” Montalto says. “A number of seniors have been able to meet their clinical hours.”
Responding to the Call
As PPE supplies became depleted, health care officials reached out for help. On March 22, Shreek Mandayam, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rowan University, received a call from—in his words—the most unlikely of people, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University’s (CMSRU) librarian.
“She said, I found the design on the web by a foundation in Montana (the Billings Clinic Foundation) for a mask and I know you have a 3D printer in your lab,” Mandayam recalls.
He started making calls to see who else had a 3D printer since Rowan’s campus was shut down and got in touch with a chemistry professor who could help print masks. CMSRU medical students also came on board and Mandayam was able to assemble a team, which was crucial since the demand was growing. Around the same time he also received a call from Inspira Health asking for masks.
These are not meant to be (a substitute) for N95 masks, Mandayam says. Rather, a mechanical barrier in the absence of PPE. “It’s meant to be something medically valuable to protect EMTs and others from getting coughed or sprayed on.”
The following weekend 30 masks were split between Inspira and Cooper University Health Care for testing. “We received really good feedback from Cooper and Inspira and started making modifications to the masks—where should the nose be, how wide the bottom should be,” Mandayam says. “They particularly liked the fact these nurses can wash the masks themselves.”
After coming up with an improved design, Mandayam and his team decided to upload it online with instructions on how to print masks for anyone to use and the response was immediate and immense.
“We’ve received responses from all over the world—France, Russia, South Africa and Germany. Every 15 minutes I receive an email from people who thank us for offering this design,” Mandayam says. “They print the masks, tell us what printer they are using and send pictures of them wearing it. Just the other day I received a picture of two nurses in Austin, Texas with a heartwarming picture saying thank you. I had a sixth grader from Linwood send me a picture saying he learned to use a 3D printer from my class and a young kid from Uganda, where supplies are very limited, who was able to print masks for first responders. It’s amazing to see the overwhelming responses. I try to answer each email but can barely keep up.”
When South Jersey Biz spoke with Mandayam, his team was already on the third version of the masks and in contact with a manufacturer going through the final phases of producing 500 masks a week or more. The Rowan University Foundation has funded the cost of materials.
“The support from the institution, the president, provost, general counsel, legal counsel has been overwhelming,” he says. “Everybody has been asking, ‘What do you need so you and your students can do this?’”
Another colleague from Rowan, Dr. Francis Haas, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, received a similar call around the same time from Jefferson Health—New Jersey requesting incubation boxes.
“When a doctor puts a ventilator into the trachea of a patient or pulls it out, those moments you have some of the biggest risk of aerosolizing coronavirus into the fine droplets,” Haas explains. “The incubation boxes look a lot like a fish tank with one of its sides completely removed. A patient’s head and shoulder goes into the box and on one side there are a couple of holes for the doctor’s hands to go in.”
He, too, assembled a team of students and received an initial donation of material of polycarbonate sheeting to make the boxes from FocalCool, a biomedical device company, before the Rowan University Foundation took over supporting the endeavor.
Since South Jersey Biz last spoke with Haas, over 30 boxes were made and distributed to Jefferson Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Inspira.
“You can hear in the voice of medical professionals, they are justifiably vulnerable and scared of contracting the virus and taking it home to families and loved ones,” Haas says. “Here, we have an opportunity to have a tool that will make a difference in real time and protect them and keep them safe. I see this as a small thing and it’s one that just happened to be the right place at the right time. I think everyone can find a small thing to do to help out.”
Committed to its Community
AssuredPartners holds annual blood drives at its office each year but with the dire need currently for donors, each individual employee has made it their mission to exceed their donations in the past by going to their local chapter to give blood now.
“We know the blood supply is really taking a hit and are trying to do our part to at least make a small dent in this issue,” says Tony Mahon, managing director, AssuredPartners. “Our involvement in the community has become the life blood of our team. From volunteering to direct parking at a COVID testing site to feeding our health care workers, we have devoted a great deal of time focusing our efforts on helping our community.”
With an even greater focus on helping the community, Mahon says it’s changed the way they look at the usual work/life balance for its employees.
“The most important aspect is the support our teams are showing to help our communities,” he says. “We encourage and support food bank donations and feeding our health care friends by buying lunches for them and dropping it off at the hospital. The paradigm has switched from work/life balance to family/community/work balance.”
Oaks Integrated Care has two food pantries in Berlin and Mount that continue to provide emergency food assistance to the community.
“Our employees have come together to deliver food to help clients who are isolated and we continue to see an increase in community members seeking support from the pantry,” says Derry Holland, CEO, Oaks Integrated Care.
On the Front Line
Inspira Health’s newest Mullica Hill hospital couldn’t have opened at a more crucial time as they continue to see more coronavirus patients. The new hospital not only has private rooms, but the facility also has more critical care beds, more isolation capacity and a compartmentalized emergency room that makes it easier to separate patients undergoing treatment for coronavirus. And cutting-edge technology not only allows for safe monitoring of patients but it also allows for virtual communication between patients and staff members.
Many members of Inspira Health’s team have taken additional steps to fighting COVID-19. Inspira’s pharmacy teams have taken matters into their own hands by making hand sanitizer for its medical facilities after the FDA granted pharmacists temporary approval to do so due to the shortage across the country.
“Exploring innovative solutions and new methods are core tenets of Inspira Health’s culture,” says John DiAngelo, president and CEO, Inspira Health. “I am immensely proud of how swiftly and efficiently our pharmacy teams have been able to produce and supply hand sanitizer for our organization in the midst of this unprecedented emergency. Initiatives like this are of utmost importance because they support the safety of our patients, staff and physicians, across our network.”
The medical provider also created the Inspira COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, where funds support the costs of increasing bed capacity, the purchasing of PPE, assisting employees who face financial hardships and completing infrastructure projects to accommodate the impending surge of patients. The Inspira Health Foundation and its board of trustees recently donated $1 million to the fund in light of “Blue Hearts for Health Care Heroes”—an initiative that asks the community to engage in acts of gratitude in support of the fight against this virus.
Helping Save Small Businesses
The CARES economic relief package includes a few different segments, including a $1,200 stimulus check for each individual and $500 for each child, and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—a $349 billion emergency small business lending component designed to keep businesses afloat and keep employees paid. That program ran out of money mid-April, but as of press time, the federal government was negotiating a deal that would allocate an additional $310 billion into the PPP.
“One of the issues we’ve had is because of the timing of all of this—the law was passed March 27—banks started accepting applications for these loans the first week or so in April, but guidance is still coming out of Washington,” says Michael Greenwald, partner, business entity tax practice leader, Friedman LLP. “Some of the rules keep changing and it’s very difficult for businesses to know exactly what to put in their applications and what the expectations are going to be on them to get these loans forgiven because they are forgivable. There was no guidance on what self-employed individuals could apply for loans until the other day.
“The issue with the guidance is Washington is operating under the same constraints everyone else is. Everybody is working from home; the Small Business Administration and the Treasury Department are trying to intercept statutes written quickly from Congress and try to put it into effect rapidly—essentially writing the rules as they are complying the program. It puts a lot of strain on everyone.”
With so many people calling with questions and applying online for loans at the same time and sometimes causing delays, WSFS Bank’s Shari Kruzinski, senior vice president, director of retail delivery, says her team is working hard to assist customers as quickly as possible and “committed to helping our customers with gaining access to the PPP funds they need.”
“We have assembled a team of more than 100 associates and counting to focus solely on processing PPP applications for our business customers,” Kruzinski says. “We are also taking appointments for loan closings and to access safe deposit boxes. We even closed a mortgage loan in the parking lot.”
Additionally, besides following Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, WSFS Bank has taken an extra step to limit exposure for its front line employees by implementing a four-day work schedule—work four days and then off four days—and is offering extra compensation.
“We are committed to doing the right things to keep our customers and communities healthy and safe while providing essential banking services to all we serve,” Kruzinski says. “I couldn’t be more impressed by our associates. They have adapted quickly, and their creativity and flexibility are beyond amazing. Because of them I know we will continue to deliver on our mission: We Stand For Service. We have done some fun things at the branches like lunches or themed Fridays to keep their spirits up. Also, we are paying front line associates for their regular, full weekly schedule even if their hours are reduced. WSFS is offering $500-$650 bonuses to front line associates and they will also receive up to 14 days of paid leave for childcare or other events related to the coronavirus.”
To help small businesses as well as nonprofits, New Jersey Community Capital (NJCC) launched the Garden State Relief Fund, a $20 million capital loan program. Additionally, NJCC and the Pascale Sykes Foundation are expanding THRIVE—an initiative that addresses economic hardship in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties. This is similar to how NJCC has responded to previous crises, such as Hurricane Sandy.
“We put an emergency loan program in place to help small businesses and nonprofits affected by the storm, and we knew we had to put something in place, giving good and fast capital as effectively and quickly as we possibly could for this pandemic,” says Jorge Cruz, chief external affairs officer, NJCC. “We have been working closely with the Economic Development Authority and other key government agencies and engaged with current investors to help support the program. We’re really fortunate the Pascale Sykes Foundation has been a part of us.”
Plan in Place
Working with hazardous materials and responding to emergency situations are some of the reasons why GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. had a pandemic response team and plan already in place and transparency from upper management has made it a smooth transition.
“The field we work in, the work we do—responding to the pandemic—would be on our list of emergency things we encounter. We’re already thinking ahead on that,” Payne says. “The plan had to be tweaked since COVID-19 is different than the flu and SARS, but Rick Ecord, who’s in charge of health and safety and leads our response team, has done a phenomenal job keeping us informed, sending email updates and having webinars every week with Q&A sessions afterward answering anyone’s concerns. It’s not just for ourselves, but for our clients.”
According to Cioce, RCBC “laid the groundwork” for a situation like this a few years ago. “Go back to Hurricane Sandy and other similar pandemics such as the swine flu, MERS—any sort of illness or virus that had given America concern. Our public safety team and facilities team had pushed us to run scenarios,” he says.
Also helping the transition are the many students who were already signed up for online classes. Cioce says at the start of the spring semester, 54 percent of RCBC’s students were registered for an online class.
“When half of your 8,000 students are taking an online class, the fact that so many students have familiarity and comfort with a remote learning environment—it has positioned us well,” he says. “We position ourselves for the establishment of continued learning.”
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Oaks Integrated Care has developed a setup called “Impact Homes” if one of its individuals tests positive for COVID-19 and needs to be isolated.
“One of the homes is a children-friendly group home and the other is for our adult consumers,” Holland says. “We have several staff who have stepped up and said they will be a part of the impact team if consumers ever need to quarantine and recover from this virus. Thankfully, we have not had to use the homes yet, but we understand that it is essential to be prepared.”
In ways that may seem unimaginable to some, this isolation period has brought companies and its employees closer together and are more connected than they were just a few months ago.
“It’s funny but in a very real way we have become closer as a company,” Mahon says. “We have connected to raise each other’s spirits. When it comes down to it, we actually spend more time with our work colleagues than our own family on an annual basis. We miss each other, so doing things like virtual happy hour and virtual show off your pet meetings have become staples that I feel may not just be temporary.”
What most are also saying might not be temporary is the current state of the economy. There is confidence and optimism throughout South Jersey normalcy will return, the economy will bounce back in a big way and South Jersey will come out of this stronger.
“I am certain that this pandemic will pass and I am hopeful that it will be sooner rather than later,” Holland says. “I look forward to the day when we will be able to be back together in each other’s presence whether visiting with our families and friends, attending a Phillies game or going to the office to continue our important work. I am confident that New Jersey and the country will be able to bounce back and that our economy will once again be strong.”
Click here to subscribe to the free digital editions of South Jersey Biz.
Click here to subscribe to the free digital editions of South Jersey Biz.
To read the digital edition of South Jersey Biz, click here.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 10, Issue 4 (April 2020).
For more info on South Jersey Biz, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Biz, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Biz, click here.