The national stockpile of personal protective equipment has run dry, and manufacturers are straining to fill demand as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to surge. In response, University of Arizona faculty and staff have stepped up to help meet demand locally.
Kasi Kiehlbaugh, director of the university's Health Sciences Design Program, organized AZ Makers Fighting COVID-19, an online group of over 100 faculty, staff and health care professionals from across campus and Tucson to brainstorm and manufacture personal protective equipment, or PPE, from the tools and materials available to them.
Among the participants in the group is Paulus Musters, laboratory manager in the School of Architecture in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture.
"Before joining the group, most of us didn't know each other," said Musters, who, when not in crisis mode, teaches architecture students to work with various materials and processes. "But we've put our heads together and said, 'What are the major needs?' They are face shields, respirators and intubation hoods."
One of the simplest and fastest pieces of PPE to construct are face shields, said Peter Jansen, assistant professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' School of Information, who researches artificial intelligence and language and teaches rapid prototyping skills. Not be confused with face masks, the shields are plastic coverings that go over the face in addition to a mask or respirator. They're meant to block the largest droplets of saliva and mucus from sick patients and prevent health care workers from touching their own faces. They can also help scarce N95 masks – which filter 95% of airborne particles – last longer.
Jansen, who's also part of the online makers group, has focused his efforts on designing and manufacturing shields.
"I saw 3D printed face shields in the news, and it made me angry because it takes about four hours to print just one shield. You would need thousands of printers running 24/7 for weeks to meet the needs of Pima County," Jansen said. "But a laser cutter can cut plastic like butter in seconds. I wanted to come up with a laser-cut design rather than printed."
When Jansen came up with a promising design, the online group collaborated on tweaking it.
"The benefit is it's a single material. I can throw it on the laser cutter and 60 seconds later I have a complete face shield," he said. "But after Boris Reiss (assistant professor of public health and an expert in personal protective equipment) evaluated it, he said it fogged up a bit because it sat too close to the face and would benefit from being more comfortable to be worn for eight-hour stretches. So, the rest of the AZ Makers group members jumped in and have been tweaking the design."
One of the adjustments was suggested by Anna Montana Cirell, technology lead for Catalyst Studios in the UArizona Main Library, where the bulk of the shield production is taking place. As a former fashion designer, she was able to find a way to make the mask fit while reducing fogging.
The latest iteration of the all-laser cut design, created by Musters, has received the most positive feedback, said David Lesser, president of the Xerocraft makerspace downtown, who is also a postdoctoral research associate in Steward Observatory, where he specializes in designing and building radio telescopes and equipment and teaches rapid prototyping skills with Jansen.
"That's the design we're manufacturing now," Jansen said.
Kevin Woolridge, a science and math teacher at Blue Ridge High School, and Navajo County Extension Director Steve Gouker are already making and distributing several hundred of the face shields designed by the AZ Makers group at the 4-H fabrication laboratory, or Fab Lab, in Pinetop-Lakeside. Woolridge and Gouker are manufacturing the shields for Navajo County hospitals and doctors, who have given positive feedback and have requested more so they can distribute them more widely in rural areas.
In Pima County, the first 240 face shields using the UArizona-developed all-laser-cut design have been produced from an initial delivery of purchased material. This week, the group finalized their design, received a larger supply of materials and have moved into production.
CATalyst Studios has two laser cutters to do the face shield manufacturing. This week, Cirell and two student workers will oversee the production of about 3,000 face shields, which will be immediately packaged and sent out for use, Kiehlbaugh said.
Face shields have already been distributed to Campus Health and other service units on campus, such as Housing and Residential Life, which requested shields to give custodial and maintenance staff added protection while cleaning student rooms and working around students and other staff members, Kiehlbaugh said.
In addition to face shields, Musters has also designed an easily manufactured intubation hood that is placed over the patient to protect doctors from infectious airborne particles when inserting a breathing tube into a critical patient. Musters' trick is to bend plastic instead of cut it.
Lesser, whose work is based at the Xerocraft makerspace, is also building hoods, some of which are currently in use at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tucson. In addition, he is using a 3D printer to create a mold that he hopes will allow for the rapid production of one of the most complex pieces of PPE – respirators, which are masklike devices that filter out the virus.
What the AZ Makers group can offer is only part of the solution, Jansen said, as hospitals and Pima County still need more of everything.
"It's hard to find materials, and even during normal times there's typically a lag of six to 12 weeks between ordering material and receiving it," Jansen said. "Pima County needs 130,000 face shields, which means, ideally, manufacturers should have started making them three months ago."
Yet, everyone in the group is up for the challenge.
"The most encouraging thing," Musters said, "is that the hospitals all 100% appreciate what we're doing and need the equipment, and that's what's driving the group."