D.I.Y. Coronavirus Solutions Are Gaining Steam

D.I.Y. Coronavirus Solutions Are Gaining Steam

Health care workers around the world are asking for help. “What do you want?” “PPE.” “When do you need it?” “Now.” 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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