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Southern Oregon Makers Team Up To Create Safety Gear For Hospital Workers

Covid Skunkworks
A 3D printer makes a headband for a face shield to be used by a hospital worker.

A shortage of face masks and protective gear for hospital workers has led to a surge of mask-making efforts throughout the country. One group of volunteers in Southern Oregon is taking these efforts to the next level with 3D printers.

Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Jackson County has partnered with a group of makers — called Covid Skunkworks — as well as Talent Maker City, a community space where hobbyists can utilize specialized tools and equipment.

“We have dozens and will soon have hundreds of 3D prints for face shields,” says Brad Converse of Covid Skunkworks. “We have 3D prints currently in for ventilator manifolds that turn one ventilator into anywhere from four to six.”

Like other hospitals across the country, Asante is running low on personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as surgical masks and gowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. So it has teamed up with this group of local volunteers to help make face shields for its caregivers.

“The frame for [the face shield] is being manufactured on 3D printers across Southern Oregon, all the way from Grants Pass to Klamath Falls, by local makers,” says Talent Maker City program director Alli French. “The Talent Maker City's website has a link to the most current files that have been approved by Asante, so people who have 3D printers in their home, they could actually be helping this effort.”

Credit Covid Skunkworks
A face shield helps a surgical face mask last longer by blocking large droplets from a caregiver's face.

Face shields aren’t frequently used in hospitals; they look more like something a police officer would wear during a riot. Brian Murphy, director of materials management at Asante, says cloth surgical masks can actually last longer if a hospital worker wears one with a face shield, because it could protect them from large liquid droplets when a patient coughs or sneezes.

“That one wasn’t something we had kept on hand, so this group of inventors and entrepreneurs was able to really quickly develop a face shield solution for us,” Murphy says. “It was amazing.”

Community members across the country have started churning out cloth masks for hospital workers and there are several tutorials for how to make them online. The problem, Murphy says, is that not all masks are created equal. In order to protect a caregiver from infectious liquids, their mask needs to be made of a special kind of material.

“If you think about outdoor clothes, you have certain types of clothing that wick the sweat away from you and keep you kind of dry and warm,” Murphy says. “Well, a face mask is a far more complicated version of that.”

The U.S. supply chain for surgical masks has been disrupted by the pandemic. Nearly all of its masks are made overseas, and China is one of its biggest producers.

“So where they were once producing millions of masks per day, it just stopped,” Murphy says. “The combination of the break in the manufacturing chain, along with the surge in need for the product, that created a bit of a problem.”

The U.S. largely lacks the ability to mass produce surgical masks because the raw materials are hard to find domestically. The Covid Skunkworks team in Southern Oregon is on the lookout for these materials to make medical-grade respirators for local healthcare workers.

The Centers For Disease Control says homemade masks won’t entirely prevent someone from contracting COVID-19, but they could help prevent someone from spreading it. Converse says he thinks that everyone should wear cloth masks — whether they’re sick or not — to slow the spread of the virus among people who don’t know that they have it.

“You can make your own,” Converse says. “You can make them for your neighbor. Make sure to wash it every single night or anytime you come back from being outside, wash it with soap and water.”

Murphy says in the future, he’ll take this idea of reusable hospital equipment more into consideration when he’s placing orders for Asante.

“If we have an option to find something that we can reuse — that we can safely reuse — versus use it once and throw it away, I'm going to choose the product that we can reuse every single time moving forward,” Murphy says. “Because that self-sustenance piece has just never been more evidently necessary than now.”

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.