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By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Sydney Melson

For the past six weeks, the three employees of the Black Belt Museum in Livingston have spent most of their time delivering 3D-printed face shields to Black Belt businesses, first responders and essential workers in need.

Black Belt Museum Program Director James Lamb has spent most of the epidemic in his home shop ensuring the 3D printers continue running. He naps when he can on the old backseat of a Chevy Suburban.

“I’m out here 12 to 14 hours a day,” Lamb said. “I can’t leave the printers, one of them always messes up.”

When the University of West Alabama announced its shutdown mid-March, Lamb, Historian Brian Mast and Technician Tim Truelove got together to talk about how the Black Belt Museum could contribute remotely by producing virtual tours or educational videos.

But then Mast thought of using the university’s three 3D printers to do something that mattered, Lamb said.

“The printers weren’t going to be used until August,” Lamb said. “It just seemed like a good opportunity.”

As of May 5, the Black Belt Museum has produced and delivered more than 1,100 face shields at no cost to people in need, Lamb said, with more requests in every day.

The face shield, composed of a sturdy reusable plastic headband and an overhead projector sheet, is the only real protection many rural front line workers have against the coronavirus.

Edgar Pruitt, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Aliceville, said he’s grateful for the help the Black Belt Museum continues giving.

Pruitt said he’s fought for access to testing in Pickens County but hasn’t received much help. He said he’s been working with Alabama Power to increase access to testing, but testing kits are difficult to obtain.

Even if the few kits were available to his community, Pruitt said, he would need at least 200 to make a dent.

“There is one doctor in Gordo who has some kits, but there’s no public testing available in Pickens County at all,” Pruitt said. With few testing resources and limited personal protective equipment, Pruitt has turned to the face shields to protect as many workers as he can.

Pruitt said face shields are his best approach, and they’ve been well-received. He said he’s seen demand for them from police, the volunteer fire department, a local food bank and maintenance workers.

“There’s these maintenance men who do work on some subsidized apartments, so they have to go into all these elderly and sick people’s apartments to do repairs,” Pruitt said. The maintenance workers came to him and asked for protective equipment.

Pickens County, just west of Tuscaloosa County, is home to nearly 20,000 people according to census records. It is also home to a federal prison, where some employees are raising concerns about the spread of the virus.

“We just got a request from a corrections facility in Livingston,” Mast said. “If they wouldn’t have these face shields, they’re not getting any other PPE.”

Lamb said there’s a lack of quality protective equipment.

“They’re so out of date when they get them that they’re rotten or unusable,” he said. “And I’ve heard that directly from two different hospitals.”

Those hospitals, Lamb said, have turned to face shields from the Black Belt Museum.

In addition to Sumter and Pickens Counties, frontline workers in Hale, Greene, Clarke, Marengo and Wilcox Counties in Alabama as well as Lauderdale County in Mississippi have received face shields from the Museum,  Truelove said. The face shields have even found their way to New Jersey.

This has been a big commitment for the three Museum workers. All of them say they’ve only taken a couple days off since they began to make the face shields, and demand is increasing as stores open and cases threaten to rise.

“I have two friends who died of COVID-19,” Lamb said. “My mother had passed away a few years ago, she would have been very compromised were she still alive. When I get sort of tired and disgusted and frustrated, I think of those people, and that keeps me going.”

Truelove, who is a Black Belt native, said their current problem really is just one part of the daily struggle people face in rural communities.

“A lot of these people around here, they just don’t have access to things they need a lot of times,” he said. “Being able to provide one of those needs is very meaningful to me.”

Mast’s wife is a charge nurse at UAB Hospital, and he said she inspires him to be a part of the solution.

“The individuals working in those hospitals, that’s somebody’s mother, father, spouse or child,” he said. “What if it was my wife that got sick because she didn’t have PPE? Not on my watch.”

Pruitt said he’s thankful for the work the Black Belt Museum is doing.

“They worked overtime on the weekends to help my community,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done.”

Funding was initially provided by the university, but the Black Belt Museum employees are looking to increase production by seeking external funding. They have started a GoFundMe to help pay expenses for supplies.

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