Wright County, Iowa, won’t get confused with New York City, Rome, or London when analysts track coronavirus (COVID-19) data. Of course, in a global pandemic everything is relative.
It was April 16 when a meat processing plant in Eagle Grove, a Wright County town with barely 3,400 residents, knew it might have a problem. The plant (Prestage Foods of Iowa) relies on a commuter workforce and several dozen employees were making the daily trip from neighboring Black Hawk County, identified as a coronavirus hotspot.
On that same day, just 20 minutes to the east in Clarion, Iowa, Stacy German, a licensed practical nurse for the Wright County Health Department, was between patients when she heard some exciting news – donated face shields from John Deere had arrived.
Early in the coronavirus story much of the personal protective equipment (PPE) focus was on face masks and covering the nose and mouth. Now, more than six weeks deep into the upheaval that is the coronavirus, health care workers were recognizing the dire shortages of face shields to protect their eyes as well. On April 8 John Deere began producing face shields to address that need.
While health department nurses were opening boxes and trying on face shields, rumors about Prestage started to circulate. “There was scuttle about potential testing at the processing plant,” German said. In less than 24 hours, German and her fellow nurses would be part of a team sent to the plant to begin testing, first on the identified commuters and then, as positive results came in, the entire 900-worker facility.
“It, the timing of it all, was just crazy,” she said. “My husband, Nick, works for Hagie (a John Deere company), so getting the face shields brought a lot of pride for me. But, then, to go out and begin testing just didn’t seem real.”
In the end, 25 Prestage employees would test positive. German said the face shields provided a level of security for those using them.
“We’re a small health department,” she said. “We aren’t high on the list with the shortages of PPE everywhere. Without what John Deere sent we would have been in trouble. It was absolutely amazing. And such a relief.”
That’s the word, relief. When it comes to John Deere’s donations of face shields across the United States, parts of German’s story are specific to Wright County, but they aren’t completely unique. Health care professionals, those interacting with patients daily, have used that common word when describing the impact of the face shields.
Meeting a growing need
Back on April 16, the number of worldwide coronavirus cases sat around 2 million with 660,000 in the United States. Now three weeks later, those numbers have nearly doubled with thousands being added daily. It’s no wonder the need for face shields has grown with it.
“The passion and engagement of our workforce has made this a success,” David Ottavianelli, director of Labor Relations, strategic projects, at John Deere, said. “When we started this, we put out feelers to communities where we have facilities, to see what was needed. The response has been staggering. I know this brings a lot of pride to our employees, bringing the face shields from the factory line to the front line.”
What was shocking to some hospitals and care centers was that Deere was donating the face shields.
“We were receiving daily, even hourly, updates about what PPE we could get,” Shannon Zoffka, executive director for Tama County Public Health and Home Care in Toledo, Iowa, said. “I was surprised to find out John Deere wasn’t charging. I reached out and the first question was ‘How many do you need?’ I was about ready to cry.”
Small county agencies like those in Tama and Wright counties also provide assistance for local law enforcement and emergency medical personnel. Zoffka asked for 300 face shields.
“When Deere said, ‘How about 500?’ it just meant so much,” she said. “It’s great when we can tell people ‘You’re going to be safe.’ You can hear the relief in their voices. They’re tired. They’re scared. If you can help take their mind off whether they’re protected or not it really matters.”
As word circulated requests grew. And grew.
John Deere Seeding Group in Moline, Ill., is making 14,000 face shields a day, a commitment realized after modifying a section of the manufacturing facility’s assembly line. Originally, 30 workers were part of the project. That number, like everything associated with the coronavirus, has grown. Currently, 50 production employees are making the shields.
As of early May, 348,400 face shields have been requested with 314,470 shipped to facilities across 33 states in the U.S. Shipments also have gone to Canada. Ottavianelli said Seeding’s goal is to make 400,000 face shields.
Operation: Hero Support
While hospitals and health departments are the main recipients of John Deere’s face shields, schools, nursing homes, police departments, prisons, and other Deere facilities also are part of the dozens of locations receiving them.
As Ottavianelli began compiling a list he contacted Kevin Blount of Deere’s Military Employee Resource Group (MERG).
“David let me know about their face shield program and offered the opportunity for me and the MERG team to investigate if we had any face shield shortages within our veterans’ medical facilities and clinics,” Blount, senior quality engineer and enterprise chair/co-founder of MERG, said.
The two then created “Operation: Hero Support” and Blount reached out to Deere’s six MERG locations (Quad Cities; Waterloo, Des Moines, and Dubuque, Iowa; North Carolina; and Fargo, North Dakota). It didn’t take long for a list to grow.
Orders for Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers have totaled 120,500 face shields shipped to 45 separate VA medical centers in 25 states. Those VA facilities provide support and supplies to more than 140 satellite clinics and medical facilities, Blount said.
“It’s nice and warms the heart to see that people still care enough. To come together and not make it about the all-mighty dollar is incredible,” said Jade Fillinger, voluntary services manager for the Salem, Virginia, VA hospital. “It creates a sense of community cohesiveness, no matter how big that community is.”
Fillinger’s view has an extra layer of interest. His father worked for 32 years at Deere’s Waterloo factory.
“It really put a smile on my face seeing that it was John Deere doing it,” he said. “That’s a special connection for sure.”
Karinne Davidson, chief of voluntary services at Fargo’s VA Health Care System, shares Fillinger’s appreciation. While Salem hasn’t been as hard hit as other areas, Fargo’s order of 15,000 face shields helps in multiple ways.
“This donation gives us more flexibility to expand our PPE capabilities while offering COVID-19 screening and treatment services for a wide area,” she said.
Davidson said the message of keeping both veterans and frontline health care workers in mind is “heartwarming.”
“We’re extremely grateful to John Deere and especially to John Deere’s military resource group for coordinating this donation,” she said. “We’re honored to serve our nation’s heroes, and we’re eternally grateful for companies like John Deere who continuously search for ways to support veterans and the community.”
Connecting us all
The circle between John Deere, health care workers, and the virus is surprisingly small. Cait Mansker, a registered nurse at Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., joins stories like German’s and Fillinger’s. Her father, Gus Mansker, works at John Deere Davenport (Iowa) Works, and told his daughter about the project and was able to give her 300 face shields.
A traveling nurse, Mansker, who also holds a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, was in Texas prior to leaving for Brooklyn.
“In Texas, PPE was in such short supply it had to be kept locked up and we were required to reuse it for multiple shifts,” she said. “At Interfaith, PPE almost entirely comes from donations. I was able to bring the 300 face shields my dad gave me. I feel so blessed to have a direct connection that enabled me to bring protection for not only myself but hundreds of nurses working in a hard-hit Brooklyn emergency department.”
Mansker said John Deere’s name resonated with many of her coworkers in the traveling program. But Brooklyn-born nurses were unfamiliar with the manufacturing company.
“They were so excited to get support from a company so seemingly distant,” Mansker said. “John Deere is an integral part of the Midwest and has a global impact. To me it’s so much more. To me it’s part of home.”