February 22, 2021
Strengthening the Chain
Alumna Nicolette Louissaint ensures that the U.S. health care supply chain is ready for any challenge
By Elizabeth Speed
First, it was PPE. Then hand sanitizer. Now, it’s a vaccine that must be kept under extreme refrigeration. Whatever the material needs are for a global pandemic or other health care challenge, alumna Nicolette Louissaint finds a way to connect supplies with those who need them.
Nicolette is a 2006 graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering and Mellon College of Science. Her dual academic interests were the perfect preparation for her current role as executive director of Healthcare Ready. It’s a public-private partnership that ensures coordination of elements across health care supply chains. If there’s an urgent demand for supplies, Healthcare Ready connects federal, state and local governments with companies to meet the need.
“We focus on what's called all-hazards, which means it could be basically natural, human-made or a disease outbreak,” she says. “Our response work is so publicly facing that oftentimes that's all people see. But at the same time, we are working on plans for what happens if we have a chemical attack, biological weapons attack or major cyberattack. Health care would not be able to continue to operate without those systems. So there's always a lot of things going on in the background as well for preparedness.”
“We’ve moved somewhere around 20 million pieces of PPE donated in the last six months. Masks, gowns, gloves, N95s, face shields, and also batteries that are needed to operate ventilators, we have coordinated those donations.”
Wildfires and an active hurricane season were a major focus in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the list of needs.
“We don’t drive the trucks full of vaccines, we’re not the boots on the ground administering them, but we are the people who figure out how to get the trucks on the road and do what it takes to get those boots on the ground,” Nicolette says.
If the need was literally boots, Nicolette and her team would be sourcing shoes. But for COVID-19, it’s been more about connecting disparate groups and solving issues. A good example is the need for PPE. Early on, Healthcare Ready focused on acute needs and shortages. Even as masks became common, her team still works to make sure the supply chain of materials is uninterrupted.
“We’ve moved somewhere around 20 million pieces of PPE donated in the last six months,” Nicolette says. “Masks, gowns, gloves, N95s, face shields, and also batteries that are needed to operate ventilators, we have coordinated those donations.”
Another project involved 20,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, procured from Procter & Gamble and other suppliers, and delivered predominantly to high-need communities, which are often communities of color. Sanitizer arrived in big drums, and Nicolette directed the effort to portion it for both organizational and individual use. Healthcare Ready staff also provided training to frontline teams, so they could understand the complex issues of supply chain management and how to work with other organizations.
“I think my engineering training is a big part of how I am able to do this work. My understanding of systems, system integration and systems engineering is very much founded in the things that I learned at CMU.”
As vaccine rollouts are making headlines, Nicolette and Healthcare Ready work on a new set of challenges. They aren’t manufacturers, distributors or administrators of vaccines, but they are trying to strengthen the network supporting these entities in quickly getting shots into arms. If you think about health care as a web, Healthcare Ready isn’t one of the major hubs, rather they create connections between them. They’re readying pharmacies to act as mass distribution sites, supporting the eventual use of vaccines yet-to-be-approved, and working to get ahead of future phases of distribution.
“It’s all about the strategy to get to herd immunity, ideally this year, by pulling the right people in and getting them at the table,” she says. “Training is a big part of how we build capacity, and how we maintain it. We make it easy for organizations to partner and work together, to share information and to figure out how to move forward quickly.”
Handling the complexity of this work requires a foundation in several subjects. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both chemical engineering and biological sciences from CMU. She also holds an MBA as well as a Ph.D. in pharmacology.
“I think my engineering training is a big part of how I am able to do this work,” Nicolette says. “My understanding of systems, system integration and systems engineering is very much founded in the things that I learned at CMU.”
Nicolette was also active in student government during her CMU days, holding the office of student body vice president, which put her in charge of doling out budgets to student organizations. With more demand than dollars, conflict was inevitable.
“We needed to have a common vision,” she recalls of how she eventually met the clubs’ requests. “And I think that's very much how policy works today. Figuring out what it looks to align on some core common goals and being able to move those forward together is a big part of how we are able to make progress at Healthcare Ready.”