Workers at Kitsbow Cycling Apparel completely retooled their factory to make personal protecive equipment such as masks and face shields to combat the pandemic.
Workers at Kitsbow Cycling Apparel completely retooled their factory to make personal protecive equipment such as masks and face shields to combat the pandemic.

More Reedies Helping Us Get Through the Coronavirus Pandemic

Sharing the sweat, tears, and hard-won knowledge of Reedies grappling with the COVID-19 crisis.

By Randall S. Barton | April 1, 2020

“When you gaze long into the abyss,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “the abyss also gazes into you.” 

As the coronavirus tears across the planet like Godzilla on steroids, some Reedies are finding ways to battle both the coronavirus and the contagion of fear that follows in its wake.

(We know there are many Reed College stories we haven’t heard yet. Please send us more suggestions at


Caring for the Children of Healthcare Workers

For healthcare workers, even in the best of times, childcare is a monumental headache. As Emily Lane ’15 points out, “in a pandemic, with schools and daycares closed, it’s become a crisis of its own.”

When Oregon Health & Science University announced that classes were on hiatus, Emily, who is a medical student there, sprang into action. Within an hour, she had formulated a plan to provide childcare for health workers and circulated it on Twitter. 

Fellow medical student Chris Graulty ’15 joined her team and they hit the ground running, creating a hotline, raising donations, and establishing community partnerships. More than 200 medical, dental, and nursing students are now volunteering with the program.

The response from the Portland healthcare community quickly moved from incredulity to relief.

“There was all this panic and stress in the (emergency department), particularly from nurses and doctors who were starting to have trouble getting childcare,” says Chris. “It caused this dilemma where healthcare workers were having to choose between coming in to care for patients and caring for their children.”

“Healthcare workers have told us that their daycares have closed, or their nannies have quit on them for fear of exposure,” says Emily, “and they are still required to go to work to save lives.”

Emily and Chris were both housing advisors at Reed, and both were biology-psychology majors, though Chris came at the discipline from the psychology perspective and Emily from biology. After starting medical school at OHSU, they worked together in on-campus advocacy.

“Being at Reed taught me a sense of community-mindedness, stemming in large part from the Honor Principle,” Emily says. “To me, honor means that if you have the ability to do something good then you have the responsibility to do it, and do it to the best of your ability. Reed also gave me the foundation from which to think critically about the consequences of rapidly shifting policy decisions and to adapt on the fly.”

The volunteers they rounded up are working tirelessly to give peace of mind to healthcare professionals on the front lines. “For me, it isn’t fear of infection so much as it is anxiety about not being able to keep up with the demand,” Emily says. “I have always tended more towards the anxious end of the spectrum, so oddly it’s helped me to have a crisis to focus on.”

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The Man Behind the Mask

What’s the difference between a mask and a bicycle jersey? No, it’s not a joke, it’s a real question. David Billstrom ’83 is the CEO of Kitsbow Cycling Apparel, which designs and manufactures premium bicycle apparel from its factory in North Carolina. “We had been bracing for the pandemic since March 2 when we saw the inevitable math of the impact and the slowing of supplies from other sources in our supply chain,” David says.

Then the company’s founder obtained a face-shield design from Stanford University. And they realized that they could retool the factory to make shields, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

“When I saw that face-shield design I connected with local first responders,” David says. “Those agencies said ‘send as many as you can, as soon as you can.’”

Kitsbow began making face shields the next day. The day after that they designed a face mask and posted a few pictures on Facebook. It went viral. Orders began pouring in from around the country.

“We’re giving first priority to Western North Carolina,” David explains, “but we’re fielding requests from all over.”

Designed for single use, the face shields preserve face masks from splatter and matter. The masks are multi-use with HEPA filter material in them, so they’re nearly the level of N95. Although there hasn’t been time to test them and get approval, users are taking whatever they can get for protection.

“We are humbled at the responsibility of protecting tens of thousands of front-line workers,” David says. “The ‘technology’ in a pandemic is the skill of making do. The challenge today is sourcing material. Elastic seems like a pretty basic ingredient to keep the mask on the care provider’s head. But elastic isn’t produced here in the U.S. Our challenge is to figure out how to make masks without elastic. We’re up to it.”

David not only made lifetime friends as a student at Reed. He also learned how to write code in what was then affectionately known as the Terminal Ward, where computer terminals were connected to Reed’s mighty mainframe, the infamous PDP-11/70. He also started the first of many businesses he would oversee, offering to type senior theses priced by the finished page, regardless of how many edits the senior wanted. “I met a number of talented seniors who more or less set the bar for smart people for the rest of my life,” he says.

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Fighting the Pandemic With Information

Ali Nouri ’97 is the president of the Federation of American Scientists, founded in 1945 by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. The original mission of the nonprofit think tank was increasing international transparency around nuclear weapons and disarmament. While the FAS continues that work, under Nouri the organization has upped its game to combat misinformation.

At a time when people are craving certainty and grasping at straws, the FAS has put together a panel of the most relevant, confident experts to answer the public’s questions about the pandemic on its site,

Questions are answered on demand by a team of experts in epidemiology and infectious diseases. Ali says the effort was born from earlier attempts to handle misinformation in a time when looser standards in communicating scientific information can lead to false certainty. Though information can be disseminated with lighting speed, Ali cautions, “There are times when we have definitive answers, but science works in a probabilistic realm.” Nonetheless, this database of reliable information is a boon for folks seeking answers from qualified experts, not just talking heads.

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Close the Schools, Flatten the Curve

Rae Wannier ’10 is an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, working on her PhD dissertation on infectious disease modeling. She has been mostly studying Ebola, but with the arrival of COVID-19, she quickly shifted her focus.

Rae is part of a national group of modelers led by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) trying to answer questions about the disease trajectory, risk, and intervention strategies. Her working group, led by UCSF’s Dr. Travis Porco, has been working on modeling the impact of school closures and other social distancing efforts on the trajectory of the disease.

“It’s been a challenging but rewarding experience so far,” she says. “I have personally been working on generating a working, agent-based model for the Bay Area for exploring these simulations.”

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Bracing for the Storm

As COVID-19 cases flood into the hospitals, the nation’s health workers are working around the clock. Edward Liljeholm ’03, a certified nursing assistant at Oregon Health & Science University, assists with the direct care of patients infected with COVID-19. He is part of a reserve or “float pool” that are deployed to work on different floors throughout the hospital. With the pandemic’s emergence, Edward has been working in the emergency department and general medicine areas.

“We are increasing our precautions for infectious prevention,” he told us last week. “Some of them are subtle, like only using one computer station, with stations being cleaned at regular intervals. Additionally, splash protection is more prominent, and elbow bumps are encouraged, though non-contact is better. Other precautions are more noticeable, such as the prohibition of visitors in the hospital except for extreme circumstances (labor and delivery, hospice) where only one adult is allowed. The tram has reduced passenger loads, restricted to employees and patients. For now, parking is free. It is the calm before a storm.”

Oregon has so far seen fewer cases of COVID-19 than other states on the West Coast, with 690 cases and 18 deaths reported as of March 31, 2020. But cases are projected to keep increasing until mid-May. In the meantime, Edward keeps his focus on the tasks before him and how to prepare for the next phase of this calamity.

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Hunting for a Vaccine

Researchers around the globe have been working night and day on potential vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Last month CanSino Biologics, in collaboration with China’s Institute of Biology, got the go-ahead to begin human testing of its experimental recombinant coronavirus vaccine, Ad5-nCoV, in Wuhan. To Gary Rieschel ’79, this represents a ray of hope. Gary is the founder and managing director of Qiming Venture Partners in Shanghai, and CanSino is one of the ventures in Qiming’s portfolio. Living and working in the US and China for 35 years, Gary is an ardent proponent of cooperation between the two superpowers. “The great crises of the 21st Century will require that China and the U.S. work together,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “This is just an appetizer of the costs to global societies if that doesn’t happen.”

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Helping the Dispossessed

It’s one thing to shelter in place. But what if you have no place to shelter in? Jim Beller ’70 and his wife, Beth, have been working with authorities in Albany, California, a small town in the Bay Area, to get hotel rooms for unhoused people who have been sleeping outside during the pandemic.

For several years, Jim and Beth have volunteered making and serving sandwiches at a Richmond soup kitchen and organizing a free shower program at the Albany Aquatic Center. 

“From the beginning,” Jim says, “we realized that we needed to do active outreach in local encampments to get enough guests to justify the effort. Every Friday morning, we started making several dozen PB&J sandwiches and passing them out with bottled water and printed invitations with a map. After the first bleak year, by speaking in front of local churches and civic organizations we were able to recruit a good group of volunteers. The people who come for showers have been great. They always help us set up our tables, sign up, and cooperate with each other to make sure everybody gets a shower.”

Jim gained quasi-official status when an Albany council member asked him to contact the city manager about people he and Beth met who seemed likely to die—something they were seeing all too often. They also pushed for a low-income housing project, a drop-in services center, and a rent-review measure, all of which were eventually adopted by the city. In 2018, Beth and Jim were honored as Citizens of the Year for 2018 by the Chamber of Commerce.

Unfortunately the pandemic has closed the local schools and shut down the shower project. Many of the sources of food and cash that people in the encampments depend on have been cut off. So Jim began working with city social workers to identify and offer hotel rooms to unhoused people within Albany. They have placed about 10 people.

“That is probably most of the people sleeping rough in Albany,” he says. “Unfortunately there are about two hundred more just over our borders in Berkeley and Richmond.”

Jim has taken Beth as his role model for courage. Four years ago, the encampments were bigger and the social workers didn’t enter without a police escort. Beth, a retired RN, began going in and out of tents and tarps to check on people’s health, avoiding interaction with anyone acting out.

Jim worries that unhoused people, especially in chaotic encampments,will be scapegoated if current efforts to stem the pandemic fail.

“When the coronavirus epidemic started, the first stay-at-home order I saw exempted people working with vulnerable populations, and I didn’t ask for clarification if that applied to 71-year-olds,” Jim says. “Our greatest fear would be to become spreaders, of course, so we are winding down even making sandwiches for others to distribute.”

Tags: Alumni, Life Beyond Reed, Covid-19