COVID-19 sparks rise in ad-hoc mask making

Stony Brook uses 3D printer to produce face shields
Stony Brook University's iCREATE lab is 3D printing face shields for medical personnel at nearby Stony Brook University hospital. (Stony Brook University)

The mushrooming coronavirus crisis has caught global medical facilities short of vital supplies such as respirator masks and face shields. While large companies have stepped in to try to alleviate the shortages, there has also been a uptick in more focused regional efforts.

The local efforts are not likely to put a huge overall dent in the growing dearth of vital supplies medical facilities will require to deal with a rapidly growing number of patients affected by the deadly virus. However, the rise in these efforts demonstrate the use of fledgling technologies such as 3D printers, as well an altruistic spirit that often surfaces in a large crisis such as coronavirus.

One technology-driven effort is underway at Stony Brook University's iCREATE lab, which reportedly is using 3-D printers to manufacture face shields for Stony Brook University Hospital.

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According to the report on, the iCREATE team designed certain parts of these face shields to be replaceable so medical personnel can change them out, allowing for a more sanitized product. With current supplies, iCREATE intends to make 800 face shields, and is in the process of procuring enough supplies to make up to 5,000 products.

"We are doing something positive to protect the health of the medical professionals that are helping the community," said Charlie McMahon, interim senior vice president and enterprise chief information officer for Stony Brook University, in a statement.

To assist companies considering using 3D printing for mask making, Hewlett-Packard said in an online CNET article it would work with those who bought its 3D printers to make medical face shields, hands-free door openers and an adjuster for face masks for medical staff who often must wear them for hours.

The article also quoted H-P as saying it was testing "hospital-grade" face masks meeting the higher-end FFP3 (filtering face piece) standard and parts for simple emergency ventilators. HP is working with offering free downloads of its 3D-printed medical equipment designs.

Another 3D printer company, Carbon of Redwood City, Calif., has reportedly also sent face shield designs to customers who have bought its 3D printers. Likewise, Prusa, the 3D printer company founded by industry expert Joseph Prusa, has made available designs for a protective 3D printed face shield.

While modern technology is without a doubt the key driver in mask-making efforts big and small, there’s an uptick in relatively low-tech efforts to provide face masks for local medical facilities.

In one such effort combining an age-old pastime—sewing—and modern-day social media, Ruth Dennison, a retired 30-year nurse for the Lehigh Valley Health Network, decided to launch a home-made face mask making effort from her house, according to a report on the local Morning Call.

The report said Dennison launched a Facebook group called “Masks for the Lehigh Valley.”  Before long, the group amassed hundreds of volunteers Monday night, willing to sew, design, cut fabric, drive supplies, donate sewing machines, and do whatever is needed to produce masks for the Lehigh Valley’s major hospitals.

The effort was reportedly welcomed with open arms by the Lehigh Valley Health Network, which is using the homemade masks to preserve the supply of its N95-rated masks. The medical network is dealing with shortages of protective equipment like others around the country.

Taking the volunteerism even further, Georgia’s Phoebe Putney Health System, has loaded templates to make face masks online for donors locally and around the world to help the hospital group overcome a dire shortage of supplies, according to a report on the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In the case of the Phoebe Putney Health System, the effort was started by employees who started sewing their own masks for hospital workers faced with shortage of N95 masks. The mask-making templates are online for local donors and around the world to help the hospital group overcome a dire shortage of supplies, which include gowns, gloves and eye shields, as well as N95 masks.

While the efforts of volunteers to help address mask shortages is appreciated, the masks they create, which are made of cloth, do not provide the best protection against the spread of infections, according to coronavirus expert quoted in a USA Today article.

"The only mask that the CDC considers safe from you getting the coronavirus, the only way to actually prevent you from inhaling it, is the N95 mask,” said  Captain Michael Doyle, a U.S. Army New York National Guard physician assistant, in the article. Doyle is the commanding officer at the drive-in coronavirus testing site in New Rochelle, New York.

According to the same article, the FDA said DIY masks mostly closely resemble. loose-fitting surgical masks. While such masks, properly warn, can block large particles containing germs from reaching a person’s mouth and nose, such surgical masks, “by design, do not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures.”


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