The New York Times

The New York Times 25 Mar 2020

Coronavirus is Straining Hospitals. Here's How Innovators Are Helping.


Health care workers are facing a serious shortage of critical equipment needed to treat the coronavirus. We spoke to the makers who are building innovative protective gear and ventilators for them.

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Health care workers around the world are asking for help.
“What do you want?”
“When do you need it?”
They’re in desperate need of more PPE, also known as
personal protective equipment.
Stocks of the critical gear are
disappearing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Doctors say they are rationing gloves, reusing masks
and raiding hardware stores.
The C.D.C. has even said that scarves or bandannas
can be used as protection as a last resort.
“I’ve met the doctors, and talked with them every day.
I think there’s an interesting challenge
here in that, currently, there’s
such a need that if they had anything,
they would deploy it.”
The cries for help are mobilizing a wide range
of innovators, some of them even joining forces
through online messaging platforms like Slack.
These are engineers, doctors and even high school students
from around the world.
They come from all walks of life,
but say their goal is the same.
“It’s amazing because no one’s asking
which country are you from?
They’re just like, how can I help?
What do you need?”
They’re pitching in by crowdsourcing designs
for masks, face shields and even ventilators
that could be reproduced around the world.
This is Nick Moser.
He’s an active player in one of the maker groups.
His day job is at a design studio.
Now, he’s designing replicable face masks.
“We’re focused on three products: a face shield,
a cloth mask and an alternative to N95-rated respirators.
The face shield is the first line of defense
for medical workers.
It protects against droplets.
If a patient coughs, it’ll hit the face shield
rather than them.”
Some designs are produced using
3-D printers or laser cutters.
“There you go.”
Then, the prototypes are field-tested
by health care workers.
Even some university labs are experimenting
with DIY techniques.
A group at Georgia Tech is working
with open-source designs from the internet
to develop products.
“My lab works in the area of frugal science,
and we build low-cost tools for resource-limited areas.
And now, we’ve realized that I don’t have to go that far.
It’s in our backyard, right?
We need it now.
So this is a plastic sheet I have —
not too different from what you
would get out from a 2-liter Coke or a soda bottle.
I actually bought this from an art store.
It’s just sheets of PET, so we can cut these out.
We are calling this an origami face shield,
and it’s the Level 1 protection.
This is one idea.
There are multiple different prototypes.”
“This headband can be reused, and a doctor or nurse
could just basically tear this off and
basically snap another one on.
We’re hearing that, in some cases,
that they go through close to 2,000 of these a day.”
Because the need is growing so rapidly,
the makers are also thinking about how
to increase their production.
“So how do we get from this one
that someone made at home on a laser cutter or a 3-D printer,
and then get it in the hands of thousands of doctors
and front-line workers?”
They’re working with mass manufacturers that
can take their tested designs, and replicate them
at a larger scale.
“We’ve been on the phone talking
to a number of suppliers, material suppliers.
So I think one of the neat things that we’ve done
is not only the design, proving that you can make it rapidly,
but then also trying to secure the entire supply chains.”
This is Dr. Susan Gunn, whose hospital system
in New Orleans has even started its own initiative
to 3-D print equipment.
“So it starts with an idea.
We put the idea into place.
And then we make sure that it’s professional-grade first.
Infection control is looking at it,
and we’re making sure that we’re
using the correct materials that
would be approved by the C.D.C. and the
World Health Organization.”
Dr. Gunn says the gear is a safe alternative
for those who might otherwise face a shortage.
“We’re creating face shields and we’re
creating these different PPEs, and we’re putting them
in the hands where people felt like they needed them.”
Another critical piece of equipment is the N95 mask,
and the supply is dwindling fast.
Nick and his team are designing
a robust alternative for this mask
that can hold any filter material,
and be mass produced.
“It is easily printable.
This one is used in medical situations
where there’s an actively infectious patient.
So nursing homes or obviously I.C.U. units
would be the target to receive these.”
“These are really hard objects to manufacture because you’re
going to give it to a nurse, and then
I want to be really confident that it will not
let a virus through, right?”
This equipment is not approved by federal agencies,
but the designers are testing their respirator prototypes
for safety.
“That was basically the first, almost the first question
that was asked.
Can we do anything that’s actually going
to be safe and helpful?”
Some makers are pursuing even more ambitious projects.
An engineer named Stephen Robinson
in New Haven, Conn., is working
on designing ventilators to help patients breathe.
Countries are facing a dire shortage of
the lifesaving machines.
Right now, these DIY ventilators
are still prototypes.
“So really, this should be thought
of as the seed of an idea that could potentially
be grown with, and absolutely requiring, the medical
and the tech communities.”
But they could become key if critical supplies run out.
“We’re in very uncertain times,
and I see explorations and projects
as kind of an insurance policy that could potentially
be leaned on if there was extreme circumstances.”
Health care workers are hopeful that these efforts
could prevent an even worse outcome.
“We don’t want anybody — let’s be clear — to use a bandanna
to protect themselves.
I hope it never gets to the point
where we have to wear a bandanna.
And I don’t think, with this initiative
that we will get there.”
For innovators like Saad, the challenge is personal.
“I just can’t stop.
I have to do stuff.
And then I’m currently at a hospital.
That’s why I have this uplifting little flower portrait.
We’re expecting a baby boy, and what do we
tell him when he grows up about what we
did when society needed us?”

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