Artists and device-makers in Aspen producing medical equipment to meet shortage in COVID-19 crisis
HOW TO HELP
If you have access to a 3D printer or 3D printing materials, you can help keep Colorado medical professionals protected through the NoCo Face Shield Project. Learn more at nocofaceshieldproject.org.
To meet the national need for varied protective equipment for healthcare workers, you can donate materials, make equipment or give money for the #GetUsPPE efforts at getusppe.org.
Normally in the springtime Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village would be humming with resident artists and workshops. Its Digital Fabrication Lab would have artists making sculptures and such on its bleeding-edge technology 3D printers.
But in spring 2020 with the novel coronavirus pandemic gripping the U.S., the Ranch is closed to the public and the “Fab Lab” is a small-batch factory churning out personal protective equipment to help meet the critical shortage for medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients.
The Ranch initiative is run by Leah Aegerter, the Fab Lab technician.
“I’m grateful to help out,” Aegerter said in a recent interview. “You can definitely feel powerless, even though staying home is a great contribution too at this point. It’s always great to feel useful. I’m lucky to have resources at Anderson Ranch to be able to do that.”
She is among a small fleet of Aspen area locals using their talents to create medical equipment like face shields, medical masks and ventilator devices that are in shortage during the public health crisis.
Part-time Aspen resident Nancy Hairston, president and CEO of MedCAD, a custom medical device company headquartered in Dallas and Denver, was here in mid-March when the local coronavirus outbreak began. Hairston decided to stay here as she pivoted her company’s engineers and 3D printers toward inventing new devices that could fill the shortages of ventilators and protective equipment in Colorado and nationwide.
“When all this happened we started getting calls from surgeons, customers and reps saying, ‘Is there anything you can do to develop products quickly for us, to help out?’” Hairson recalled. “So we pivoted the company to make COVID products.”
The artist-run Anderson Ranch initiative launched when Aegerter got plans for making reusable plastic face shields and visors through the open-source initiative #GetUsPPE, which is providing files, with which anyone with a 3D printer and the skills to operate it can fill the national shortage.
“I chose that because I knew I could make a lot of them quickly,” she said. “The face shields seemed like a good fit for the equipment I had and that not a lot of people could make.”
After research and trial runs, and getting a go-ahead from Colorado hospitals and clinics who said they would accept them, Aegerter began production on April 3.
Each mask takes about five hours and 30 minutes to print at Anderson Ranch, so she keeps her three machines running around the clock and has been making about nine per day. She’ll begin shipping to the clinics she has partnered with beginning this week.
The Town of Snowmass Village has awarded Anderson Ranch $1,000 for materials for Aegerter’s initiative. Each mask costs about $2.65 in raw materials, so the money will fund hundreds of ready-to-use shields. Aegherter expects to keep making them until they’re no longer needed and she encourages anyone with access to a 3D printer to get involved.
Hairston, the MedCAD CEO, and her team normally make custom devices like guides for surgeons to use for precise cuts during cancer surgeries. So they are accustomed to quick turnarounds and creative solutions.
Though they don’t normally make protective equipment for ventilation, they were uniquely suited to help in the current crisis.
“We are working with a different case with different needs every day,” Hairston said. “So this has been right up our alley developing devices.”
After consulting with clinicians, pulmonologists and respiratory specialists in the Aspen area and Denver, they began making protective equipment and created a splitter for ventilators which allows one machine to keep two COVID-19 patients breathing, essentially doubling the supply of a hospital’s ventilator capacity.
The splitter, now being tested, can be mass-produced at MedCAD’s Denver and Dallas facilities and would save lives in hospitals facing ventilator shortages.
“We are developing and prototyping here in Aspen around the clock,” she said.
Because Aspen has not yet had the anticipated surge of critical coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed hospitals in cities and small towns elsewhere, it ended up being an ideal home base for Hairston’s initiatives.
“It’s been beneficial to be here, “ she said. “The consulting I and our remote engineering team have had in this town has been very helpful because people have been interested in helping and they have more time than clinicians in harder-hit cities right now.”
The first product MedCAD delivering is a 3D-printed face shield for medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients, used by doctors and nurses the same way Aegerter’s Anderson Ranch shields will be. Hairston’s team is producing upwards of 1,000 per week on their fleet of high-production 3D printers. They began shipping to hospitals this week.
“Face shields are in need everywhere,” Hairston said. “I’ve heard numbers I can’t even believe from smaller hospitals. It’s a huge need.”
Hairston is also working on 3D-printing N95 medical masks to help meet the shortage in Aspen and beyond. She is working toward FDA approval of a medical mask with a 3D-printed air filters for a cleanable, reusable model that could used several times in a day if needed. On Saturday she said it was in its 12th prototype after 15 days of round-the-clock work.
Aegeter, the artist, looked into making products like N95 masks as well, but found most hospitals would reject the open-source version because they’re not approved by health organizations for medical use.
The discrete efforts from the local artist and CEO come in addition to the wide local sewers’ movement to make fabric masks for the general population as Colorado public health officials advise people to wear masks during everyday life.
Other local artists playing a role on the medical equipment side are Aspen-based sculptor Ajax Axe, who is working with the nationwide group Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies, making 3D printed parts and face masks. And Susan Carrolan, the local milliner whose hat stand is a fixture at Aspen’s Saturday market, who has marshaled her team of sewers at the Aspen Airport Business Center to sew surgical wrap fabric pieces that to be used in medical masks.
“The bottom line is that it feels good to be able to do something that helps,” Carrolan said.
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