It is one of the most in-demand pieces of health care equipment in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic — an N95 mask.
The West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM), the Greenbrier County Health Department, the Greenbrier County Board of Education and other local agencies are partnering to deliver the 3-D production of masks modeled after N95 masks in the event the county runs out of its supply of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). The masks are not commercially made or tested, but the hope is to provide some protection for first responders and frontline health careworkers.
“We are in a severe national shortage of N95 masks and PPE,” said Bridgett Morrison, D.O., the health officer at the Greenbrier County Health Department and a 2007 WVSOM graduate. “We are working on a plan C right now.”
That plan includes masks that are being made with 3-D printers from Greenbrier East High School, Greenbrier West High School and Eastern Greenbrier Middle School. A prototype was created on March 21, with a teacher from each of the schools beginning multiple-run production on the masks just one day later.
“We started printing and since then we have found different versions of the mask and have changed print settings. It’s been a real fluid situation. We are trying to make changes and improvements as we go along,” said Kevin Warfield, a pre-engineering teacher at Greenbrier East High School who previously worked as a draftsman and has knowledge of civil engineering and architecture.
There are about 30 printers currently available for production from the school system, according to Vicky Cline, Ed.S., Ed.D., director of technology, assessment and accountability for Greenbrier County Schools.
Each N95-like mask takes about two hours for the educators to produce. Angie Leef, a chemistry and pre-engineering teacher at Greenbrier West High School, said she has been able to make about 12 masks a day. In an earlier career, she worked in environmental engineering and she has a degree in chemical engineering.
“I feel blessed and humbled to be a part of this. I can’t help with the medical part, but I can help with this,” she said.
Lisa Dolan, a technology education teacher at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, can produce about 75 masks a day. While Dolan said it has been difficult juggling work and the household responsibilities of taking care of her three children, she is happy to aid in helping produce equipment that could be used in times of need.
Those involved said some community members have expressed concern about making sure proper materials are used to make the N95 respirators. Most require a special filament that deters microbacterial growth, but since there is a national shortage of antimicrobial filament, the teachers have begun using a plastic or polylactic acid filament, made from a vegetable-based plastic material.
“In an ideal situation there is a specific material we could use, but that isn’t available anymore,” Morrison said. “It’s not exactly perfect but it’s much better than a bandana, a scarf or nothing. I recommend users to mold the mask to their face and get it fit tested, and place a surgical mask overtop.”
She said the N95-like masks, which accommodate normal maneuvers of the head, can then be decontaminated with an alcohol bath and used as a last-resort line of defense.
“Our goal here is to have some protection versus none at all,” Morrison said. The last-resort masks may become vital in the next week, when she expects Greenbrier County will begin seeing additional COVID-19 cases and ultimately a shortage of PPE due to rural clinics typically having a low supply of necessary resources.
“It might end up like a M.A.S.H. situation,” Warfield said, referring to the 1970s television show that depicted Army physicians during the Korean War. “That’s why we had to get creative and start coming up with this last line of defense.”
Beginning March 27, the masks were moved to the Clingman Center for Community Engagement in Lewisburg, where WVSOM Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) staff members and WVSOM students used mannequin heads donated by New River Community and Technical College’s cosmetology program to shape the molds and attach elastic. From there, the health department will distribute the masks to health care providers.
WVSOM provided funding to purchase the filament used to make the masks.
“Dr. Jim Nemitz [WVSOM president] did not hesitate when I asked to use WVSOM CRCH funds to produce the masks,” said Drema Mace, Ph.D., vice president for community engagement and development and CRCH executive director. “I appreciate that he always does the right thing.”
Warfield said other schools across West Virginia are in talks to help produce shields using 3-D printers because Department of Education officials are searching for ways schools with similar technology can contribute.
“By next week we could have 1,000 printers in the state going,” he said.
Mace said that CRCH staff and WVSOM students will continue to mold, elastic fit and package the masks as long as the schoolteachers are printing them.
Morrison said that once an outbreak hits the area, she expects supplies to run out quickly. Still, she is hopeful that Greenbrier Valley residents will keep working together to continue to find ways to make an impact.
“After three weeks of trying to come up with a disaster plan, when the first mask was in my hands, it was a small win,” Morrison said. “This is a way to protect our people, and it might be the best we can do in the face of not having any personal protective equipment.”