Gov. Tate Reeves mentioned Wednesday, during his announcement of a two-week “shelter-in-place” order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that Mississippi State University would send ventilators to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
Lex Taylor said he contacted MSU President Mark Keenum as soon as he heard.
“I didn’t think anything would come of it, but I immediately got a call (back),” said Taylor, the chairman and CEO of The Taylor Group in Louisville.
A team from Taylor Machine Works and a 12-person team with MSU’s Paul B. Jacob High Voltage Laboratory will work together to convert more than 550 battery-powered ventilators to automatic current power, meaning they can be plugged into a wall. The teams started the conversions on Friday and are sending the finished ventilators to Jackson in installments, planning to send the last ones Monday, High Voltage Laboratory manager David Wallace said.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and ventilators are necessary to treat patients who cannot breathe on their own. The machine moves air through a tube into the patient’s lungs and a nationwide shortage of the equipment makes their production during the pandemic critical.
The MSU high voltage lab was built in 1977 and is used for both commercial business and academic instruction, Wallace said. The state Institutions of Higher Learning contacted the laboratory on Monday to request the project, he said, and he and some graduate students received some parts from the IHL and started working on the designs on Tuesday.
The original plan was to start converting the ventilators this coming Monday, but UMMC contacted the lab Thursday morning to ask for them as soon as possible, Wallace said, and the rest of the necessary parts arrived Friday so the teams can start working on the ventilators. The machines were designed to run on batteries that have to be replaced about every 48 hours, which is inconvenient in an emergency situation, he said.
“I found a way to basically go in and rewire it so we can run both AC power and DC (battery) power in the same unit,” Wallace said. “We’ll be installing a switch so you can switch between the two.”
Eight of the 12 people on the MSU team are graduate or undergraduate students. Wallace said he pulled the team together from those who were still in town after classes became online-only for the rest of the semester, and the team will work in smaller groups in separate rooms to maintain a safe distance from each other.
Ryan Ladd, a senior electrical engineering student, added the project to his existing workload. He and his classmates are working “as remotely as possible” on teams to design, build and implement a project during their final semester, he said.
Despite the amount of work to be done, Ladd said he appreciates being a member of the team working on the ventilators.
“I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to actually be able to work on equipment that can save lives,” he said. “That is a very unique experience, and I’m incredibly humbled to be able to work on it.”
The Taylor Group has a longstanding working relationship with MSU’s engineering department since it employs several of its graduates, Taylor said. The family business has been in Louisville since 1927. Wallace said Taylor Machine Works sent an airplane to Fort Worth, Texas on Friday to collect the last of the parts needed to convert all the ventilators.
Everyone working on the project understands the need for it to be done and done quickly, Wallace said. Mississippi has 1,455 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 140 in Hinds County, and 35 deaths as of press time.
“This gives us a good chance to do something to really help people,” Wallace said. “It’s a no-cost deal. We’re not charging anything for this. It’s just to get the product out there.”
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.