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Texas ‘mom and pop’ business flooded with orders for helmet ventilators amid coronavirus crisis



One month ago, Chris Austin was running a little-known mom-and-pop business in Texas that fielded a few dozen orders a week for his helmet-style ventilation devices.

He had five employees and a handful of volunteers from the family’s church who would pitch in at the workshop behind their home in the small town of Waxahachie.

Then the coronavirus epidemic hit.

Austin’s company, Sea-Long Medical Systems Inc., is getting thousands of orders every day, from America’s top hospitals to countries as far flung as the United Arab Emirates. Researchers say the device, which costs less than $200, could help hospitals free up ventilators for only the most critically ill coronavirus patients.

“‘Overwhelmed’ doesn’t scratch the surface,” Austin told NBC News.

Sea-Long Medical Systems helmets resemble crude spacesuit helmets, with transparent hoods sealed at the neck and two tubes extending from the base.Sea-Long Medical Systems

The demand for the Sea-Long helmet underscores the dire shortage of ventilators in the U.S. and around the globe fueled by a surge in hospital patients suffering from COVID-19.

In the last few weeks, hospitals have been flooded with patients experiencing respiratory problems so severe they need the help of a machine to help them breathe.

Governors have made impassioned pleas for more equipment. Companies like General Motors and Ford have redesigned their assembly lines to produce the lifesaving devices. And hospital executives are scrambling to snap up any equipment that might help ease the escalating crisis playing out inside their facilities.

The Sea-Long device doesn’t look the part of a lifesaving medical device. It resembles a crude spacesuit helmet, with a transparent hood sealed at the neck and two tubes extending from its base. The helmet was originally designed to supply oxygen to patients receiving treatment in hyperbaric chambers.

But doctors in Italy, where a version of the helmet has long been used to treat people experiencing breathing problems, found it to be effective in helping some COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Bhakti Patel, who has been studying the devices for four years, said they hold promise as an early intervention that could spare respiratory patients the need to be put on the more traditional — and costly and invasive — ventilators.

“I would love for there to be a silver bullet for this pandemic,” said Patel, a pulmonologist at the University of Chicago. “My best hope is that the way it changes the game is that maybe it shaves off the number of patients who need a ventilator — even if it’s 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 5.”

“If that is the case,” Patel added, “that would be a game changer when we’re seeing this tidal wave of patients who need a ventilator.”

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Patel led a first-of-its-kind study in 2016 that tested the Sea-Long helmet against an oxygen mask for a group of 83 intensive care patients suffering from acute respiratory distress. The researchers found that the helmet led to superior outcomes: Patients using them required ventilation 18.2 percent of the time, compared to 61.5 percent for the masks, and had a better 90-day survival rate, according to the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The trial was stopped early because the helmets proved more effective than the masks, resulting in a smaller sample size than originally intended. But Patel believes the device could lead to a sea change in intensive care units that have long relied on traditional ventilators. Those devices require doctors to fully sedate patients and insert a tube into their windpipes, a process that can cause pneumonia and other problems when used for extended periods of time.

“If we take away the ventilator — which comes with this package of sedating people, making them not move, making them sort of not have memory of what’s happening — perhaps we could spare some patients some long-term complications,” Patel said.

At $162 apiece, the Sea-Long helmet costs a tiny fraction of the five-figure ventilators.

The original devices were made to run through ventilators. But working with Patel and her mentor, Dr. John Kress, Sea-Long has modified the helmets so they can be hooked up to a hospital’s regular oxygen supply, keeping the ventilators free for those who need them most. They have also made another significant modification, adding a viral filter to prevent possible COVID-19 exposure to others.

This week, the team at the University of Chicago Medical Center used the helmet on one coronavirus patient and has gotten encouraging results, Kress said. The facility has received 20 of an expected 100 helmets and is planning to use them on additional patients, the doctors said.

Chris Austin, fourth left, says his team has been working around the clock for the past several weeks.NBC News

Other companies make similar ventilator helmets, but Sea-Long’s is the only helmet available in the U.S. that meets requirements of the Food and Drug Administration and has been validated in a clinical study for acute respiratory syndrome. No studies have yet been done, however, examining the effectiveness of the devices in treating COVID-19 patients.

Austin’s team has been working around the clock for the past several weeks. The workforce has at least doubled to more than 10 people, Austin said, and volunteers have been showing up in droves.

“We have people showing up that we don’t even know that say: ‘We’re here to help. What can we do?'” Austin said. “They don’t ask for anything. They don’t expect anything. They just say, ‘Whatever you want me to do, we’ll do it.'”

“It just about brings tears to my eyes,” Austin added.

The attention has led to some other acts of extraordinary generosity.

Austin said he recently got a surprised call from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides offering to help him produce more devices.

“Chris, I saw what you do, and we want to help,” Whitesides said, according to Austin. “Whatever it takes.”

Austin told him he needed more machines to manufacture the devices but didn’t have the cash to pay for them. Later that day, Austin got a call from his New Jersey-based supplier.

“Somebody just paid your bill,” Austin said he was told. “They’ll be shipping tomorrow.”

With the four additional machines, Sea-Long expects to produce thousands of helmets a week. The goal is to produce 50,000 per week.

“This is the classic sort of American story,” Patel said. “It’s the little engine that could.”

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James Vanderploeg, Virgin Galactic’s chief medical officer, said the company is working with Sea-Long “to help them expand their capacity, helping with recruiting additional people and getting equipment in place and helping with the logistics and so forth — anything we can do to help them expand their throughput.” Virgin Galactic is also modeling potential prototypes for its own design of helmets used for ventilation, Vanderploeg said.

Major U.S. medical centers are now stocking up on the helmets, including Massachusetts General Hospital and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Austin said he’s also received orders from Canada, Mexico and several countries in Europe, including hard-hit Italy.

A Mass General spokesperson said the hospital has ordered five Sea-Long helmets but has not yet received them.

A Penn Health spokesperson confirmed that the hospital has ordered the devices.

With so much of the world in need and so many orders coming in at once, Austin has faced a difficult question: Whom to prioritize?

“We really look at where is the need,” Austin said. “We know New York has a stronger need. We know Boston. We know Chicago. … But we also know that we have to get what we can to Italy.”

For now, the company is shipping only a limited number helmets per order, “because we still can’t afford the volume of a huge order,” he said.

Amid the worsening pandemic, Sea-Long isn’t planning to raise the price in part because it doesn’t want to limit who has access to the devices.

“This probably sounds sappy,” Austin said, “but we think of what if that was our son or daughter or grandfather sitting there in that bed gasping for air and we have to explain to him: ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have anything for you.'”

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Business owners left picking up the pieces after Albany protests: ‘This is no justice’




ALBANY — Business owners across the Capital Region were left picking up the pieces of their shattered storefronts Monday, after a weekend of civil unrest that upended much of the United States and swept through the Albany area.

The destruction in Albany late Saturday night followed a peaceful daytime protest against the continued mistreatment and killings by police of black men, including George Floyd, whose death last week after begging for breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer outraged the country.

The disturbances began in the city’s South End and swept northward on Pearl Street, then west along Washington and Central avenues all the way up to Colonie Center on Wolf Road. Businesses — many of them owned by minorities — were vandalized, burglarized and looted, causing more than $1 million worth of damage across the area, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said Monday.

The violence came just as businesses were beginning to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

“[The pandemic] is nature. It’s above human control,” said Kwasi Addo-Baffour, owner of Breakthrough African Market on Central Avenue. “But this? This is just crazy.”

Addo-Baffour was awoken at 2 a.m. Sunday by his alarm company, alerting him to an issue at his market. He arrived to find his front door smashed and cash missing from the register. He spent two hours cleaning up his shop, and though Central Avenue was packed with looters, he said he did not see a single police officer. He wonders if the damage would have been as wide-spread if officers had made their presence known along the street.

Addo-Baffour said he thought his shop would be spared from destruction because it’s a minority-owned business that is clearly labeled as catering to minorities. Surveillance video shows four people breaking into his store. Three of them were white men, he said, and though his door was shattered and his cash gone, the looters left much of the food and goods imported from Africa in his store untouched.

That leads Addo-Baffour to believe that the bulk of the looters had nothing to do with the daytime protest or its message.

“This is not a protest,” he said. “This is no justice. If you’re fighting for black life, why would you break into a black store?”

Glass was still missing Monday from the front door of the Boost Mobile operated by Najeeb Khan on Central Avenue. The brick that came crashing through the glass still lay in a corner. Droplets of blood, apparently from a looter, were visible on a display counter that used to hold phones.

The looters took $40,000 worth of phones and his entire cash register, Khan said. He couldn’t speak to the motivation of the group that looted his shop, but said one thing was clear.

“They’re obviously not concerned about humanity,” Khan said. “If they were, they wouldn’t have done this.”

The destruction left much of lower Central Avenue looking like a town bracing for the impact of a Category-5 hurricane. Windows and doors were boarded up, both on businesses that experienced damage this weekend and those anticipating continued unrest.

In an effort to provide some relief to businesses affected by the rioting, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced on Monday that the city’s Small Business Facade Improvement Program will be waiving the 50-percent match requirement for businesses to receive funding under the program.

“The sun rose on Sunday morning and we saw the damage that was done to small businesses that are really the lifeblood for our community,” Sheehan said. “These are small businesses, many of them owned by people who live here in the city of Albany, many of them minority-owned businesses, and they also provide essential services in neighborhoods that are under-serviced. So we want them to be able to reopen quickly. We want to be nimble, we want to be fast.”

Mark Brogna, owner of Capital Wine & Spirits on Lark and State streets, considers himself lucky. His shop was also looted early Sunday morning, but the intruders were able to grab only about five bottles before being spooked by his shop’s alarm.

“It gave up a good fight,” Brogna said of the glass door that was kicked in by the looters. Brogna stayed in his store late Saturday, expecting trouble. He left just after 2 a.m. His door was kicked in around 3:30.

The confluence of a pandemic and civil unrest could not have come at a worse time for small business owners, he said. “It’s very hard,” Brogna said. “It’s difficult. It’s stressful. It’s worrisome. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong?” He anticipates keeping the plywood that now reinforces his shop’s windows up until next weekend, at the earliest.

“I take pride in the way the store looks,” Brogna said. “This just looks sad.”

Now, business owners across the region will have to contend with the possibility of more unrest in the upcoming evenings. Addo-Baffour, for one, isn’t taking any chances at his shop when night falls.

“I  will stay here and defend myself,” he said.

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GOP FCC Commissioner says Twitter CEO is ‘weaponizing’ his business




Brendan Carr, FCC Commissioner, speaking at the State of the Net Conference 2019 at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

Michael Brochstein | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is “weaponizing” the company for “his own partisan political beliefs.”

Carr, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2017, made the charge during a Monday interview on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” about Trump’s new executive order on social media. The order targets a 1996 law that shields tech companies from liability for their users’ posts and empowers them to engage in “good faith” content moderation. Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the law, known as Section 230, in recent years as tech companies have grown in size and influence while attracting greater scrutiny for their competitive practices and content moderation standards.

But politicians tend to be split along partisan lines over their reasons for reforming the law. While Democrats supporting reforms generally aim to hold tech platforms to similar standards as publishers when it comes to what they see as objectionable content, Republicans have taken issue with what they claim is a biased method of removing content that silences conservative voices. Tech platforms have repeatedly denied removing content based on partisan beliefs.

In his interview Monday, Carr said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was generally taking a better approach on content moderation than Twitter’s Dorsey.

“I think Zuckerberg is right, Facebook is wrong. It’s kind of veered from some of Zuckerberg’s instincts from time to time,” Carr said. “I think there’s been a big distinction that last couple weeks between Facebook and Twitter where Mark Zuckerberg has said, look, put my political beliefs to the side and he’s been expressing them and good for him, that’s not how I’m going to support my business, my business is about supporting free speech. Contrast that with Jack Dorsey who looks like he’s now weaponizing his corporation to pursue his own partisan political beliefs.” 

Twitter placed a “public interest notice” over a recent tweet by Trump for the first time, obscuring a message about the protests in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Twitter said Trump’s post, which said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” violated its policies about glorifying violence. While the company would normally remove such a post by other users, Twitter invoked its June 2019 carve-out for world leaders, which allows it to maintain posts from such figures that are in the public interest but otherwise violate its policies. 

Facebook, by contrast, left the same message up on its platform, angering usually quiet employees who took to Twitter to share their disagreement with the company’s decision. Zuckerberg spoke with Trump on the phone about the protests on Friday, a source confirmed to CNBC. Axios, which first reported the news, said both parties characterized the call as productive.

Still, Carr criticized Facebook on other grounds, including the makeup of its new oversight board that’s charged with adjudicating complicated content decisions on the platform. He called out the inclusion of Pamela Karlan, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University who testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Addressing the question of how the perceived political makeup of tech companies should factor into the assessment of bias, Carr said, “I think at least from a public policy perspective, if you were holding yourself out there as a neutral platform, at least from a political perspective, and then you stack the deck with hardened partisans, I think that undermines — putting the government hat aside — I think that undermines the user-base’s confidence.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment. Karlan and Twitter declined to comment.

Trump’s executive order was widely criticized by the tech industry, which claimed the order would backfire by forcing tech platforms to further limit speech to stem their liability risk. Democrats, even those who have supported potential reforms to the law, claimed the order was a distraction from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 lives in the U.S., disproportionately impacting black Americans.

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WATCH: Trump to sign executive order aimed at cracking down on Facebook, Twitter

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Shopper numbers jump 31% as lockdown in England relaxed | Business




Shoppers rushed back to high streets and retail parks on Monday as the reopening of car showrooms, markets and some Ikea stores marked the easing of lockdown restrictions in England.

The number of shoppers out and about jumped 31% across all retail destinations by 5pm in England compared with last week’s bank holiday Monday, according to analysts at Springboard. For the UK as a whole, shopper numbers rose 28%.

footfall v bank holiday

“It appears that even though only markets and car showrooms have opened today in addition to essential stores, shoppers are heading back into bricks and mortar destinations,” said Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s insights director.

Shoppers flocked to the Swedish furniture chain Ikea, which reopened 19 stores for the first time since March. People queued from 5.30am in some locations with local reports of 1,000 people outside the Warrington store and people waiting several hours to shop in Croydon, south London.

Ikea stores were allowing in only one adult and one child per household and play areas and restaurants remained closed.

A spokeswoman for the chain said: “Whilst customers have experienced long queues at times, these planned measures are in place to ensure everyone’s safety and we’re incredibly grateful to the public in playing their part to help keep everyone safe.

In some stores where we’ve seen strong demand, we’ve taken appropriate decisions to open early for browsing and to temporarily close our car parks to help ease pressure and reduce waiting times.”

footfall v last year

Wehrle said the number of shoppers at all retail destinations was still more than 60% down on the same time last year, but people were now willing to venture out. Monday’s shopper numbers were partly lifted by those visiting coastal towns and historic areas to make the most of good weather as well as the gradual reopening of a wider range of shops.

“There is a change of mindset. People are regarding lockdown as not over but in its dying phase,” Wehrle said.

Non-essential retailers have been closed across the UK since 23 March, when the lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus started, but retailers are keen to reopen as trading online has not made up for store closures.

Many businesses are struggling for survival with Debenhams, Monsoon and French Connection among those to have closed branches or warn they need to raise cash to survive.

Under new government rules, car showrooms and outdoor markets selling non-food items were allowed to reopen from Monday. Food market stalls in some areas have been able to operate since May, but many owners have chosen not to do so.

While the vast majority of non-essential stores, including clothing, shoe and toy stores, will not reopen until 15 June, a range of other retailers selling products classed as essential such as DIY, furniture and bicycles, have gradually been reopening under lockdown.

Restaurants remained closed.

As shopper numbers increased, so too did the number of people travelling.

Motoring organisations reported a much busier start to the week on roads. An AA spokesman said breakdown callouts on Monday had peaked from 9am, an hour earlier than the pattern during lockdown, indicating the return of a morning rush.

Data from the AA until the end of Sunday showed that the weekend had been the busiest since the start of lockdown, with traffic at around 80% of normal levels, or about 15m cars on the road.

Motor traffic on major roads in London was at just under 80% of normal levels between 7am and 10am, about 3% higher than last week. The partial reopening of primary schools is likely to have added to traffic, despite calls for parents to walk or cycle rather than drive children to school.

The number of passengers using the London Underground on Monday rose by about 20% from last week, according to early data from Transport for London. Tube travel in the morning peak was about 11% of pre-coronavirus levels, with 124,000 journeys between 7am and 10am, compared with 106,000 at the start of the last working week, Tuesday 26 May. Daily totals last week had grown to 8-9% of normal 2019 passenger figures. 

Train operators said there was little difference in passenger numbers on Monday, with people still urged to use public transport only for essential travel. Govia Thameslink Railway, the operator of Britain’s biggest commuter network, said there had been a very small increase compared with last week.

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