By Cory Phare
Flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections is crucial to preventing our health care system from being overwhelmed. Why? A key medical instrument that helps keep patients breathing is in short supply: ventilators.
“There are about 175,000 ventilators in the United States,” he said, “but we anticipate the need to be around 1 million (due to the coronavirus pandemic). What that means is that people who would normally require them will be denied access and might die because of it.”
Colorado anticipates a shortfall of up to 7,000 devices at the height of an outbreak. But Brown is among a cohort exploring an uncommon approach that might prove a stopgap for the dire situation: a 3D printing program that converts a snorkel mask into an emergency temporary solution by adding a valve that can connect to CPAP machines or directly to oxygen outlets in hospitals.
It’s a simple technique to create an airtight seal and route positive air pressure that appears to work in a pinch. The results could save lives.
“The idea is that this might keep those less-severe patients from declining and needing full intubation, which will free up ventilator machines,” Brown said.
The project originated in northern Italy, where the medical system is struggling to keep up with the surge in COVID-19 cases and similar ventilator shortages. Brescia, Italy-based Issinova posted open-source plans for individuals and organizations to begin immediate 3D-printing of a component part, known as a Charlotte valve, that allows oxygen to flow in and carbon dioxide to be expelled.
A key element of fighting the fast-spreading virus is sharing this information even faster. Brown, who has led crisis-recovery courses in humanitarian engineering for the University, has connected with others in online communities dedicated to making ventilators quickly and cheaply. After discussing the efficacy of the approach with an employee of the National Institute of Health and several respiratory therapists, he’s piloting the “low-risk, high-impact potential” project with 10 masks to start with and sharing insight with colleagues at the Community College of Denver.
And though the Auraria Campus is closed to all nonessential personnel, Brown has been able to collaborate with lab coordinator Dave McCallum in printing the key component from afar.
Additionally, he is exploring ways to fabricate personal protective equipment (PPE) in need by health care workers; in the wake of testing shortages, Brown’s students are also developing apps to track self-reported symptom data and analyze public-health patterns.
“We’re asking, ‘What can we do with the resources we do have in a limited amount of time?’” Brown said. “We have smart people and access to technology like 3D printers – how can we best use that to make a difference and save people’s lives?”
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