Day after day the headlines remain bleak. The coronavirus is spreading and the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by health-care professionals is woefully in short supply.
On Thursday morning, as the U.S. death toll exceeded 5,100 and the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 exceeded 211,000, the Washington Post broke the story that the national stockpile of PPE is nearly exhausted. Across the nation, as during World War II, Americans are rising up to help.
In Madison, a local business and a Dakota State University professor are teaming up to fill the breach. Global Polymer is working with DSU professor Justin Blessinger to craft semi-disposable masks with replaceable filters that can be used in lieu of N95 masks.
The partnership began when Blessinger started looking for ways the AdapT Lab at DSU could help to meet the need for PPE.
"I've been following the news of the coronavirus fairly closely," he explained.
In doing so, he noted a shortage of supplies seemed to be a motif.
Because the mission of the AdapT Lab is to use technology to remove barriers, he began to explore ways technology could be used to remove the barrier to personal safety posed by the well-publicized shortage. In doing so, he learned that a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic and a Billings dentist had designed a mask which could be fabricated using a 3D printer -- and had made the design files public.
In an interview with Yellowstone Public Radio, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Dusty Richardson, explained why he and Dr. Spencer Zaugg had done so.
"It's a creative solution to a bad problem," he said. "I wouldn't claim that it's a perfect solution. I wouldn't claim that it couldn't be improved upon, and that's why we included the files out there -- so that people, engineers, companies are able to help solve the shortage."
With those design files, Blessinger began working to help solve the shortage. He began to print masks using the 3D printer in the AdapT Lab and to communicate with administrators at Madison Regional Health System about them. He also posted a call for help on a Madison area Facebook page.
"Anyone else have 3D printing capability? We can print re-usable, disinfectable masks with a disposable insert. Some of us are making these from a common set of plans. Happy to share," Blessinger wrote on March 26.
Mike Whitethorn, CAD/CAM engineer at Global Polymer, was tagged and with the support of company president Todd Huntimer, the company became engaged in the project as well. Initially, the plan was to use the company's 3D printers to print masks for local health-care professionals.
A 3D printer, such as that owned by the DSU AdapT Lab or a private individual, can print a mask in five or six hours. The commercial printers at Global can print 11 masks in a single day. That would significantly increase the number of masks which could be available to MRHS employees.
However, Global has begun to recognize the limitations of printing masks, which are created in layers with a filament. The company is gearing up to produce the masks using UHMW polyethylene, a food-grade plastic that has been approved by both the FDA and the USDA.
"It's way more sanitary. It will be easier to clean," Whitethorn said, explaining that molded masks will stand up to sanitization processes better than the printed masks.
In order to make compression-moldable masks, he does need to modify the design. That's his primary project at present: designing the mold so the company can begin producing the masks.
In investing time and money in this effort, the company is stepping out on a limb. Global Polymer doesn't have an identified market or a sales strategy for releasing the masks once they are available.
"We'd rather take the chance and be ready for it," Whitethorn explained. "At worse case, we're going to give it to our employees."
The company is being proactive because it does take time to design and produce a mold. Once that is done, Whitethorn said "the sky's the limit" regarding actual production. Hundreds of masks could easily be manufactured in a single day. However, with the number of presses the company has, thousands could also be produced.
The need for thousands may be just around the corner. In recent days, the CDC and World Health Organization have begun to reconsider the previous recommendation that people do not need to wear masks unless they are sick or working with those who are ill. Officials now believe that up to 25% of infected individuals show no symptoms and could be spreading the virus, which may influence future recommendations.
Until that time comes, Global Polymer is investing thousands to address the local need for PPE.
"Todd is a good man. He's allowing us to do what we can," Whitethorn said, recognizing the cost to the company.
Blessinger said the project does face some challenges in moving forward. Among these is creating a seal between the mask and the wearer's face that doesn't cause irritation. Until that issue has been addressed, the masks will not be an appropriate substitute for N95 masks, which he understands.
"You don't want to give people a false sense of security," he said.
While working to address this challenge, he is also in communication with the state Office of Emergency Management about the work being done in Madison and about Global Polymer's efforts to mass produce the masks. As far as he knows, the state has not responded to the information he provided.
When asked about plans for distributing the masks locally, Blessinger said that providing health-care providers at MRHS with the protective masks is the first priority. Then, the masks will be available to the nursing home and emergency responders.
Global Polymer and the DSU AdapT Lab are not alone in seeking to respond to the shortage of PPE. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology issued a press release on Friday indicating the university is 3D printing masks for Monument Health and Rapid City area health-care providers.
"We hope to print as many as we can," Jeffery Woldstad, head of the SDSMT Department of Industrial Engineering, said in the press release. "Right now, we believe that we have the material on campus for about 1,000 masks. However, we are ordering more materials and will keep going."