As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges is providing front-line health care personnel with the personal protective equipment they need to safely work with an overwhelming flood of patients.
“We are in absolute unprecedented times,” Christy Anderson, executive director of innovation at Banner Health, said last week. “We are all taking proactive preventative measures as much as we possibly can — whether it is ordering more supply from the existing manufacturers, or trying to produce extra quantities and alternative sources of supply.”
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended people wear masks in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
The PPE most in demand for health care workers are N95 masks and face shields. With hospitals overwhelmed and more than 1.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, there are PPE shortages across the globe and the United States is no different. As of Wednesday, there were 1,556 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County and 37 coronavirus deaths within the county.
Fortunately, modern technology is playing a huge role in making a dent in the PPE shortage.
The Innovation Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix announced last week they have engineered a way to develop N95-substitute masks and other PPE prototypes including face shields and general surgical masks.
Barrow has previously printed 3D model replicas of patients’ brains and spines to help surgeons prepare for complicated procedures. But as the COVID-19 pandemic began to emerge, the center applied these same principles to the global shortage of PPE that health care providers needed to safely care for COVID-19 patients.
“We’re doing this because we want our doctors, our nurses and our team to remain safe and healthy and on the front line,” said Barrow President and CEO Michael Lawton.
The N95-substitute masks are produced through a combination process of 3-D printing and silicone molding to create an airtight seal, according to a release from the center. A P100 filter is then used to allow the mask to be worn for up to three months if all parts are sanitized properly.
“We have a world class team of engineers who did a phenomenal job designing, prototyping, and testing numerous possible solutions to the N95 mask shortage,” said Michael Bohl, MD, leader of the Innovation Center team.
The center also decided to share their design templates and instructions online for others to produce more of these potentially life-saving PPE alternatives.
Joan Ridgeway, a Peoria resident, said Monday she appreciates the “team effort” to fight the PPE shortage.
“It’s been said many times, but we are all in this together,” Ms. Ridgeway said as she retrieved her mail. “Everyone needs to work together.”
A similar type of technology is being utilized to produce face shields.
Banner Innovation Group announced they are working with community partners to create an array of supplies that meet CDC guidelines and are able to be sourced locally and quickly. Most recently, that partnership brought in the help of the 3D printing community to create face shields.
According to a release, this type of PPE mounts to the team member’s head using a headband, which is secured using an elastic strap. Mounted to the front of the headband is a clear plastic face shield, which protects the health care worker’s mouth, nose and eyes from any droplets or aerosols that could be present while providing patient care.
In addition to providing a layer of protection for the health care provider, the face shields also prevent procedural and N95 masks from becoming soiled or dampened. That can extend the useful life of the much-needed masks.
According to a release, Phoenix-based Walter LLC is manufacturing the clear face shield material using a laser cutter and assembling the face shields in an infection-controlled environment — the coalition should be able to make about 1,000 face shields a week. Cutting the face shield only takes about 30 seconds apiece but printing each headband can take several hours.
“We’ve had a maker community that has worked in here for the last decade,” stated Kirk Strawn, MD, founder of Walter LLC. “It’s really a perfect facility for us to be able to contribute to the face mask production.”
Dr. Strawn’s group is coordinating production efforts with 3D printers that typically make products like cookie cutters and dental appliances.
“A large number of 3D printers out in the community have started to coordinate their efforts, centralize all of the headband supplies and create completed units so we could deliver them to the health care workers,” Dr. Strawn explained.
The face shields will be delivered to Banner Health’s Supply Chain team, which is distributing the face shields across Banner’s six-state service area based on need.
For those going out in public, the CDC updated its recommendations on masking late last week, advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus — and not know it — from transmitting it to others.
The CDC has cited recent studies showing a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms, and that even those who eventually develop symptoms can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms themselves.