Before COVID-19, There Was Ebola
HHI has extensive experience with precision engineering in the defense and aerospace industries, including manufacturing aircraft maintenance stands for 15 years. They’ve been doing industrial construction for 48 years for the U.S. Department of Defense and other clients. And they have 30 years of experience with biological and chemical containment.
In 2014-2016, there was an outbreak of the deadly infectious disease, Ebola, in west Africa. When American medical professionals treating Ebola patients were infected and became sick, they were flown back to the United States for treatment. However, to keep the flight crew and other passengers safe from the virus, it was necessary for the sick patients to travel inside biocontainment units called Containerized Bio-Containment Systems (CBCS).
The CBCS units had to be manufactured so that even if there was loss of pressure inside the plane, the virus wouldn’t seep out of the box and into the rest of the airplane. Working with MRIGlobal, a nonprofit research lab, HHI were tasked with designing and manufacturing these units.
“This is something that had never been done before and we had to do it in six months!” says Hokanson. “We designed it, fabricated and built it, and got it third party tested, all in about 190 days.”
HHI built a total of four of these biocontainment pods for the U.S. Department of State. The units involve complex, precision engineering and were manufactured to a significantly higher standard of than Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4), the CDC’s highest standard for biocontainment. “The entire door system is a new invention. We had to make sure that patients would be safe, even if the units were sitting on the tarmac for 12 hours. So they each have their own power source, HVAC system, and adequate air flow,” Hokanson explains. “Medical grade oxygen needed to be available. And the staff inside the unit needed to be able to communicate with the outside.”
The COVID-19 Cruise Ship
Then, this year, Hokanson happened to see those same CBCS pods on TV — this time on flights bringing home COVID-infected patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had been quarantined off the Japanese coast.
He felt both proud and inspired.
HHI had the experience and skills to do something significant to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. So the team put their heads together and designed the Mobile Triage Unit. Once they developed the prototype, they got feedback and tweaked the design.
A press release from HHI describes the details of the MTU:
The layout of the MTU includes four patient rooms with three beds each, nurses stations and support equipment. Systems include UPS power circuits, insulated wall and ceiling panels, hospital grade flooring with welded joints, two 1,500 gallon tanks for fresh and waste water, HVAC system with 18 air exchanges per hour, visual air flow sensors, single pass air system, HEPA filters, seven days of power via diesel generator, and fire alarm system with dialer. It also includes a HIPAA approved networking package to integrate with existing hospital/medical facilities communications.
“I’m pretty sure the MTU is the first of its kind. It’s mobile, can be completely set-up within a couple of days, and can withstand hurricane force winds.”
Supply Chain Challenges
Like other manufacturers, though, HHI struggled with disrupted supply chains.
“Ordinarily, we have lots of suppliers for HEPA filters. These are a crucial component of the MTU because they capture the viruses as the air moves through them,” explain Hokanson. “But it was hard for suppliers to get enough of them, because factories were getting shut down and not making them.”
In fact, one of HHI’s usual suppliers was unavailable because she was sick with COVID-19 herself. Eventually, one supplier who knew what HHI was trying to do decided to put a hold on a delivery to another customer whose project wasn’t as urgent, and to prioritize HHI’s more urgent need.
“We had similar things happen for the generators, aluminium sheet stock, and flooring material,” says Hokanson. “Companies said they would work overtime shifts to get us what we needed. People really wanted to be part of this project.”
Instead of selling the first MTU, Hokanson decided to donate it to a healthcare facility that could make good use of it.
“I’m sure later in the year my accountant will say, ‘What were you thinking? Don’t you know how to add!’” laughs Hokanson. “But I believe in inspiration and I was inspired to donate it.”
Hokanson sent out an email to all his contacts and asked them to email all their contacts to find a suitable recipient for the MTU. In the end, HHI selected the Global Surgical Medical Support Group. The Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida is housing the unit — and the medical staff are thrilled with the state-of-the-art addition to their facility.
HHI has a couple more MTUs that are close to completion. They’ll be ready to deliver in less than 6 weeks.
Hokanson notes that we were unprepared for this pandemic, even though experts had been warning us for years. The MTU is a way that healthcare systems can be better prepared for outbreaks of future infectious diseases — as well as helping them cope this time around.
The MTU can also be used for other health crises — hurricanes and earthquakes to car accidents and mass shootings. They’re built to withstand hurricane force winds up to 185mph (298km/hr), and are designed to comfortable in outside temperatures between -20F to 110F (-29C to 43C). If necessary, they can be self-sufficient at full capacity for up to 7 days.
“We built it. But it’s inspiration and a lot of collective brainpower that made it happen.”
Zena Ryder is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about construction. You can find her at Zena, Freelance Writer and on LinkedIn.
This article was first published in the Modular Advantage - November/December 2020 Edition.