Heroes of the pandemic

Delivering a sense of normalcy to Minnesota

COVID-19 has severely limited our freedom of movement; those quick runs to the pharmacy seem fraught now. Leisurely dinners at our favorite restaurant? How about a quick and socially distanced bite on their outdoor patio? How lucky we are, then, that so many Minnesotans are willing to bring some semblance of normalcy right to our doors. Groceries and hot meals, prescriptions and packages. We owe a debt of gratitude as well to our bus drivers, newspaper delivery people and trash collectors who’ve seldom missed a beat despite unprecedented challenges. This month we also salute Minnesota businesses using innovation and ingenuity to keep front line workers safe and a coronavirus vaccine their top priority.

Kevin McIntosh

President, Summit Medical, Eagan

Kevin McIntosh returned from spring break with a grim assignment — layoffs. McIntosh is president of Summit Medical of Eagan, a 65-person company that manufactures disposable medical devices used mostly in elective surgeries. “The nature of our products means they’re not critical in the time of COVID,” McIntosh said. Who would have guessed that elastic would save the day? Just before slashing jobs, McIntosh ran across a simple design for desperately needed face shields. “We already had that major component — elastic for the headbands — in house,” he said. He reached out to suppliers for foam and plastic and, “in a few hours, we had a prototype.” Since March, Summit has produced more than 1.4 million face shields for health care workers, compliant with FDA standards. “And we never had to lay off anybody.”

“Customers [tell us], ‘These are the nicest we’ve had.’”

Angela Hardy

USPS mail carrier, Minneapolis

Mail volume dwindled and package delivery “exploded.” That’s USPS mail carrier Angela Hardy’s new normal in a nutshell. A mail carrier for six years, Hardy (pictured on cover) was working at the Minnehaha post office, which burned down during protests after George Floyd’s death. She was transferred downtown, where she stuffs mail and cages filled with packages into her minivan daily. She sanitizes regularly and ask clients to please not hand her letters to mail. “I say, ‘Just stick it out of your mailbox and I’ll take it.’ ” She’s lost 25 pounds walking 14 miles a day, de-stresses as vocalist for the band Vision Pains and is proud to know most everyone on her route. COVID is nothing compared to working when she was eight months pregnant “in, like, 110 degrees. Since I made it through that I can pretty much make it through anything. You learn how to adjust.”

“We’ve delivered for hundreds of years. We will deliver through this.”

David Pflum

President, DriSteem, Eden Prairie

Turns out it is the humidity, says David Pflum, who knows more about water vapor than most people you’d invite to your next (socially distanced) dinner party. Pflum is president of Eden Prairie-based DriSteem, a manufacturer of commercial grade humidifiers for health systems, prisons, schools and museums. When COVID-19 arrived, it “quickly became apparent that keeping humidity in the right range can help minimize the spread of the virus when you talk and sneeze,” Pflum said. Relative humidity between 20% and 30% provides an inadequate level of humidity for protection; 70% to 75% is a breeding ground for mold. The sweet spot? Between 40% and 60%, which is where DriSteem targets its systems. “Larger droplets fall quicker to the ground,” he said, “so they have less chance of being inhaled by someone else.”

“We’re not glamorous, but it’s nice to know we help.”

Andre Roberson

Senior companion driver, Lifesprk Go

Pizza, packages, produce. Andre Roberson (pictured on cover) makes a different kind of delivery — the people kind. Roberson is a companion driver with Lifesprk Go’s senior transportation service. Trained in dementia care, he picks up clients at their door, escorts them to medical appointments, religious services or the grocery store and waits to get them home safely, too. He wears an N95 mask, constantly cleans surfaces and carries extra masks for riders. He recalls one man whose family couldn’t pick him up safely from the hospital after discharge, so Roberson drove the man home and monitored him for several hours before leaving. Also a concierge for University of Minnesota Physicians, Roberson said he’s always been drawn to caring for people. He’s proud to help seniors combat social isolation and feel connected and productive.

“Some invite conversation, others rest their eyes. I respect whatever they would like.”

Brent Mellett

Bite Squad driver, Rosemount

Brent Mellett is used to the “We love you!” shouted from behind doors as he returns to his car after a drop-off. The driver for Bite Squad covers about 100 miles a day, a welcome visitor delivering restaurant food to families, college students, the elderly and medical workers. He’s also used to shouts of, “It’s nothing personal but please just leave the food on the steps!” he said with a laugh, noting that he’s “masked-up” and constantly washing his hands. Early in the pandemic, the only plus was his ability to “get across town in five minutes.” With business up again, he zips from Brooklyn Center to Burnsville giving people sustenance and a sense of normalcy, including families ordering for gatherings at a safe distance in backyards. “The best thing that’s come from this is people realizing that, whatever our differences, it doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; people are coming together.”

Jane Kimble and Chad Walberg

Director of quality and director of operations, Entegris, Bloomington

Thousands of high-purity bags used to store and freeze drugs in development by pharmaceutical companies are being made in a Bloomington plant by Entegris. The Massachusetts-based company is known for its work with the manufacturers of chips that power devices like computers and smartphones. Now its single-use 2-D bags are playing an important role in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. “With a focus on purity, our technology and expertise are well-suited for COVID vaccine manufacturing,” said director of quality Jane Kimble (pictured on cover). “We became a natural partner for these pharmaceutical customers. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.” Director of operations Chad Walberg added that the 1- to 20-liter bags carrying the promise of life-saving drugs are “key to therapies of the future.” And, he hopes, therapies right around the corner.

“To be able to say, ‘I’m part of the solution to help humankind’ is pretty remarkable.” - Chad Walberg

Phil Steger

Owner, Brother Justus Whiskey, and co-creator of All Hands with Chris Montana and Jon Kreidler

Phil Steger flew home from a business trip in mid-March and hadn’t even left the airport when he knew something big was up. “On the TV, the NBA was announcing it was canceling its season,” said Steger, owner of Brother Justus Whiskey Co. in northeast Minneapolis. “Whoa. I thought, ‘OK, we’re cbrenting all our plans.’ ” His 1,500-square-foot distillery immediately stopped regular production and pivoted to making hand sanitizer. Three days and 10 gallons later, he drove to Higher Ground, a Catholic Charities homeless shelter that serves 1,000 people a day. “The staff was lined up waiting for me,” he said. “They had one squish of Purell left.” Witnessing the massive need, he teamed up with Chris Montana of Du Nord Craft Spirits and Jon Kreidler of Tattersall Distilling; the three set up the supply chain, production, donation processing and fulfillment. Their All Hands collaboration has made more than 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, distributed to more than 2,000 organizations, including hospitals, nursing homes, affordable housing units, group homes and child care centers. Being out in the community to witness not just the need but the generosity and courage of first responders was humbling, he said. “I just got this overwhelming feeling of how amazing this community is and how many people are out there helping every day.”

“I just felt honored to help the helpers.”