A subsidiary of injection molder Mack Molding Inc. teamed with a Vermont medical center to adapt a snorkel normally used by divers into protective gear for medical staff.
Staff at Southern Vermont Health Care and Medical Center reached out to Synetic of Woodbridge, Conn., for help with shortages of personal protective equipment.
"We were looking for alternatives to disposable N95 masks because our shipments were not being reliably delivered and we were concerned about the amount of PPE we had on hand for the staff," Sheila Boni, nursing director and PPE officer at SVHC, told Plastics News.
Kevin Dailey, vice president of administration and chief of human resources at SVHC for the last six years, had previously worked in HR at Arlington, Vt.-based Mack Molding for 15 years.
"I was hearing a lot of anxiety over the availability of personal protective equipment as the pandemic was growing," Dailey said. "I'm very familiar with [Mack Molding's] ability to rapidly design and prototype products."
After reaching out to the company for help on March 23, Dailey said, he gave Synectic President Adam Lehman an N7700 respirator, a "usually readily available respirator that fits over your nose and mouth with filter canisters," as an example for the company's eventual prototype.
He and Lehman spoke a few times a day about the design of the mask, Dailey said.
"We had an extremely tight window," he said. "We needed them almost yesterday."
Synectic redesigned a snorkel mask purchased from a local scuba shop, removing the part that usually sticks out of the water and replacing it with a custom-designed filter component in two weeks and started 3D printing parts for the prototype that was approved by SVHC doctors.
"The hospital's been great about giving us feedback on the concept, what was liked and disliked and what needed to be changed," Lehman said.
Normally, Lehman said, respirators for medical staff would need to be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, but the quickly spreading pandemic created special circumstances.
Boni said the hospital can use PPE without regulatory approval after a risk analysis "to determine if the benefits of the use of the alternative outweigh the risks of not using it."
"The infection prevention coordinator and our infectious disease physician reviewed the product," she said. "Like many other hospitals, we're looking at prolonged reuse of disposable equipment that was not designed to be used that way, or not having appropriate equipment for staff who are going to be exposed to patients who were known of expected to have COVID. In the final analysis, the benefits outweighed the risk."
More than 130 employees are now using the redesigned snorkel masks, Dailey said, and they're also reporting improvements from wearing traditional N95 masks or N7700 respirators with plastic face shields.
The masks cover the worker's entire face, protecting the eyes, rather than just the nose and mouth, and have a silicone seal around the sides, which forces air to pull through two cartridges with P100 HEPA filter material inside, Lehman said.
The filters Synectic designed for the snorkel mask have "significantly more" HEPA filter material inside than a typical retail filter for an N7700 respirator, which are also in short supply, Dailey said.