Texan Engineers and Scientists Team Together to Manufacture and Sterilize Personal Protective Equipment

2020 New National Academy of Sciences Members

As Texas sees record numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and Governor Greg Abbott imposed a mask requirement across the state, TAMEST (The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas) convened experts to discuss manufacturing and sterilizing personal protective equipment on Thursday, June 25.

The engineering-focused session highlighted how COVID-19’s evolution—from initial outbreak to world-wide pandemic—created an urgent need for personal protective equipment and led to a reexamination of protocols regarding proper protection.

“What medical professionals and practitioners saw as we started to respond to the caseloads [of COVID-19] is that things really had to change,” session moderator Adam Hamilton, P.E., President and CEO of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said. “Some of the standard protocols we saw in medical practice went through too much personal protective equipment, at least for the supply lines we had in place at the time.”

Early on in the pandemic, speaker Bryan Alsip, M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Medical Officer, University Health System said that his team spent a lot of time looking at research to understand which personal protection works best against the virus.

“This really led to an evolution of how we used it,” Dr. Alsip said. “We initially started early in the phase with just direct patient care … then we promoted universal masking in very high-risk areas.”

The overall uptick in use resulted in problems with supply chains, which is why understanding how to safely remove, sanitize and reuse equipment is now incredibly important in hospital settings. According to Dr. Alsip, when supplies were low, they began to see an increase in donations from unconventional sources, which necessitated understanding how to adequately test equipment as well.

“Like many hospitals we had a lot of personal protective equipment donated,” he said. “And you need to make sure you’re not providing that to your staff as an alternative unless it’s been tested.”

One such unconventional source is the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium. Speaker Joseph A. Heppert, Ph.D., Vice President for Research & Innovation, Texas Tech University, discussed his work with the consortium, a regional group of organizations, businesses and individuals in working to provide protective equipment to hospitals and businesses across West Texas.

“This was a real grassroots effort of individuals who recognized that in many of our West Texas communities the question was not even how much we could reuse and how we could repurpose personal protective equipment,” Dr. Heppert said. “There was a serious lack of adequate amounts of personal protective equipment given the mounting cases we were facing. Communities were using alternatives to N95 masks because there were no other options.”

According to Dr. Heppert, the project has yielded 7,500 3-D printed face shields, prototypes for 3-D printed emergency ventilators, technology that can be used to sanitize equipment for reuse and more. The collaboration made these innovative solutions possible thanks to connecting the 3-D printing resources from across the Texas Tech University System with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, the cities of Lubbock, Midland, El Paso and others.

“We are so fortunate that it brought people together from the Health Sciences Center who had the contacts and connections with local clinics, with hospitals, with community organizations that needed additional equipment and could help us identify a need,” he said. “If it had just been Texas Tech’s campus, we never would have had those connections.”

SwRI also formed a regional alliance to try and help meet demand. The Medical Manufacturing Alliance of South-Central Texas (MMASCT) was launched to gather and distribute locally manufactured medical supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to having members share resources, the alliance is also helping to identify health and safety standards for facemasks and other medical equipment.

Speaker Imad Khalek, Ph.D., Senior Program Manager-Emissions R&D, SwRI, spoke about how his workplace transitioned from a particle emissions laboratory to a mask testing facility practically overnight.

“The staff was really excited to work in the hype of the pandemic and to work on these activities [to serve the immediate needs of our community],” Dr. Khalek said.

He said his team has been testing mask filtration efficiency to understand the different protection that comes with various mask types as well as to test the performance of donated masks. In fact, Dr. Khalek said that 73 percent of the KN95 masks tested in his lab failed to meet an equivalency with N95 masks.

“Not all N95 masks are created equal and this is incredibly important to note,” Dr. Khalek said. “Their efficiency can range from 95 percent to 99.5 percent to 99.9 percent and that is actually a major difference when it comes to filtration efficiency.”

When it comes to sterilizing techniques, his lab showed a true N95 mask maintained its optimal filtration performance for 20 sanitizing heat cycles using whirlpool decontamination, though the elasticity of the mask bands did begin to degrade after about four washes.

In addition to proper sanitation, Dr. Khalek stressed the importance that the general public do research on the types of masks they wear and stay safe when having to be in public.

“The general public is uninformed with the efficiency of the masks they are wearing,” he said. “We tested efficiency below nine percent all the way to 90 percent if you are lucky.”

Find the full video and slides from the session here. You can find more information on the Forward Texas Digital Series at tamest.org/digital-conversations.


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