(TNS) - As doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are treating patients on the front lines of the coronavirus, students and faculty at N.C. State University are manufacturing new equipment to help protect medical staff.
They’re using a laser cutter to make about 80 disposable face shields per day at the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering machine shop on NC State’s Centennial Campus. They anticipate manufacturing 5,000 face shields over the next 30 to 60 days, but that could grow as the demand increases among local hospital systems.
“There’s a really intense need,” said Landon Grace, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at N.C. State. “We feel compelled to do what we can to help them.”
The face shields are attached to powered air purifying respirators, which look like helmets, that medical staff use every time they go into a room with a COVID-19 patient to decrease their risk of exposure. The shields cover the face and have rubber lining that goes under the chin to create a cavity. Air is pumped into that cavity. The shield is then thrown away.
Grace said the shields and respirators are much more protective than N95 face masks, which people can buy at the store or see being used at a doctor’s office.
The N.C. State team is also working on a prototype for another shield for high-risk situations or incidents at a hospital that happen very quickly, like if a patient is “coding” or needs intubation.
If a patient with an unknown COVID-19 status needs to be intubated to open up their airways and doctors don’t have time to get their equipment on, this “intubation shield” can be put over the patient and limit the amount of aerosols going out at the doctor.
The reusable shield could be sitting in a room for a doctor or nurse to quickly grab and throw on a patient in this situation.
Leaders of the Triangle’s three major hospital systems are concerned about their supply of masks, gowns and personal protective equipment to keep employees safe as the number of reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in North Carolina continues to rise.
Grace said he’s also been getting a lot of distressing emails from people on a personal level. One came from a man who was desperately asking for something to help his wife, who is trialing patients at a local hospital.
Grace said they are working with UNC Health, WakeMed and state emergency management officials to get equipment to hospitals around the state, including in rural areas.
About 20 graduate student volunteers are working on the designs and assembly of this equipment. Chris Anderson, a research operation manager, runs the shop and the five or six students that come in to work. They’re trying to limit the risks to those students by having them stand six feet apart.
The team at N.C. State is also working with UNC Health to find solutions to the equipment shortages through a 3D printing network. They are putting together a network of local 3D printers and operators who are willing to take design files from NC State and print equipment for them on short notice.
They’re up to about 120 printers in the Raleigh area, which Grace said will speed up the production process, but he hopes he doesn’t have to tap that network.
Durham County Library is also using 3D printers and laser cutters to make face shields for local first responders in its two maker spaces. The library is giving the face shields to Durham County Emergency Management to distribute to Emergency Medical Services personnel. The library currently has materials to make 180 shields.
Grace said reducing the volume of equipment needed will help them the most and that comes though lowering the demand.
“We’ve got no end of people willing to help, the community response has been amazing,” Grace said. “What everybody could do is just try to stop the spread by following CDC recommendations and staying home.”
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