Over the past few months, we’ve seen how individuals and/or groups of people have come together in the spirit of compassion to volunteer their time, treasures, or talents to help their neighbors or even people they might never meet. At Trinity Health, we’ve seen this played out through a variety of gestures, whether food for healthcare workers, signs of support hanging in windows throughout the area, or crafters supplying 4,000 hand-sewn masks for employees looking to minimize the spread of COVID-19 virus in their facilities. Each of these efforts have involved personal sacrifice, effort, and a sense of appreciation worthy of the gift. This is one example, a very special example, of ordinary people being moved to accomplish extraordinary things.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is used daily by healthcare personnel to protect themselves, patients, and others when providing care. PPE includes gloves, eye protection, and several type of face coverings.
When there is a PPE shortage, such as what happened at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and for months following, it can lead to trouble.
“Early on, everyone around the country – and the world – faced a severe shortage in those supplies,” said Randy Schwan, Vice President of Mission Integration with Trinity Health. “There was consternation throughout healthcare that organizations may not be able to provide adequate PPE for their staff who were assigned to care for COVID-19 patients, so there was a great deal of intense planning and searching for sources in every community across the country.”
That’s when Jeremy and Crystal Almond stepped into the mix, going above and beyond to lead the way for a successful 3D Printed PPE drive. After learning how masks and face shields were unavailable for healthcare workers, thus jeopardizing safety for front-line staff, they heard about how 3D printers were being trialed in some parts of the country to create critical supplies and parts.
“It was a full community effort,” explained Crystal Almond. “It takes one voice to get something started, and the community came together and did something no one could do alone.”
She noted that the printing project served as a mission to focus on during the hard times of the pandemic. “It was a good project for a lot of us, helping to keep us focused and busy helping out in some way.”
The Almonds worked with their friend, Erica Erck, RN, a nurse who works in Clinical Excellence and Patient Safety at Trinity Health, to explore designs for masks that might be suitable for Trinity Health. A design that Erck found – created and published by a neurosurgeon and dentist in Montana – was printed on March 23 and brought to Infection Control and Prevention specialists and other leaders at Trinity Health who evaluated it, made sure that proper safety protocols could be achieved through its use, and then gave them the thumbs-up.
From there, the Almonds reached out to the 3D printing community in the region to create a standardized product, developed a drop zone at their home, and became the information center for all printers needing tips or guidance with the entire process. The 3D printing community was linked through a Facebook group created by the Almonds, where users shared their tips and techniques with each other and created a virtual production group. It turned out to be a wide-reaching effort; some 3D printers sent masks or face shields from the east and west coasts of the US, although the Almonds did encourage people wishing to help out to seek a healthcare provider closer to their home who may accept their donations.
It takes about three to four hours to 3D print one mask, but with about 35 printers printing, the number of masks produced began to grow. “We just printed as much and as fast as we could,” Almond said. “We were also able to utilize Minot State University’s 3D printer and the Minot Public Schools – they have a handful of 3D printers. They allowed us to use those printers to make masks and face shields, as well.”
In addition, there were about 20 donors who donated filament (the plastic material used to make the mask), the clear plastic shields for the face masks, other elastic materials, or cash to help make the project a success, she added.
Withing 50 days, the goal was met: Trinity Health had requested 1,750 masks but “we were able to go a little above that,” Almond said. In all, 1,819 3D printed masks, as well as a little over 1,000 face shields were made, collected, and donated to Trinity Health.
“We were a bit nervous at first, wondering if the printers could punch them out in time, but with each passing day the numbers started building enough to supply those in most need if we were to run out of medical-grade product,” Schwan said.
As the masks were received, they were put into a reserve inventory as an emergency alternative to surgical masks, Schwan said. Some 3D masks and face shields were distributed strategically to smaller groups within the hospital, who familiarized themselves with how to clean, fit, and safely use these masks and shields, Schwan said. “Our confidence soon grew that if we needed to, we could switch to the 3D printed inventory and be assured that our staff was trained and competent in using them to maximize their capability.”
The importance of the 3D printed PPE was especially strong for Trinity Health at a time when full attention needed to be focused on the broader goal: to prepare for COVID-19 patients needing acute care and protecting the nurses, doctors, and others who provide direct care with the PPE that they depend on, and – under normal circumstances – have no trouble procuring. “Back in March and April, we would have conference calls and meetings every day, sometimes twice or more daily, to assess a wide variety of strategies, including supplies. We would project where there might be shortages and develop strategies around those supplies to extend our ability to safety and effectively fight this virus,” Schwan noted.
“In the midst of the COVID fight and the high intensity of managing that situation, we did not have to deflect our attention to a 3D printing process we were unfamiliar with,” he added. “Led by the Almonds and some friends, they came to our aid and did the heavy lifting, as well as mustering support for this cause in the region. That was just huge! These guys swung into action, changed how they used their printers, and learned a whole new process in short order to help supply healthcare in their community with vital PPE supplies. It was a remarkable gesture of service and generosity. The confidence they gave us, that we could get through the worst days of PPE shortage, was a huge burden off our mind, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when we learned it would work.”
Over time, the PPE shortages were less imminent in middle America than they proved to be in certain areas like New York or Los Angeles. More recently, partial orders are now coming in at a pace that replaces used supplies in most cases, but the supply chain is still struggling to catch up. “There were many priorities and uncertainties we faced throughout this pandemic response, but we were comforted in knowing that PPE for our staff would not be our Achilles’ Heel,” Schwan concluded, “and for that, God bless them.”