Safety equipment shortage leads to "Let's build a mask" innovation

Tech billionaires are stepping up to ship masks out to help ease shortages. Medical safety equipment shortages are putting care providers at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic. Along the way, some real innovation is happening, too, from ordinary people.


I don’t know about you but I’m looking around for any good news stories I can find these days. The can-do spirit of the American people is undeniable. Face masks and N95 respirators are in short supply which adds to the stress medical workers are feeling. Apple CEO Tim Cook announced Saturday that the company will donate “millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe.” This announcement follows up on what Vice-President Pence mentioned during a coronavirus task force press briefing.

“The president and I literally heard directly from Apple that they’re donating 2 million industrial masks to this effort around the country and working with our administration to distribute those,” Pence said at a White House press briefing.

During the Saturday briefing, Pence said HHS “placed an order for hundreds of millions of N95 masks,” with the order coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is no confirmed date of delivery, though. Some medical care providers are making due with less effective masks or rationing masks. This increases the chance of exposure for them when we need them to remain healthy and on the job now. Pence also called upon construction companies to donate industrial masks that can be substituted in for standard medical masks. “Those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for healthcare workers to be protected from a respiratory disease,” he said.


Some donations from the corporate world are going directly to specific facilities. For example, Elon Musk donated “a truckload of PPEs (masks, gowns, etc.)” to a Los Angeles facility.

And, Mark Zuckerberg is making a large donation of masks and searching for more to give. He posted the announcement on Facebook.

Health workers urgently need more protective gear. To help, Facebook donated our emergency reserve of 720,000 masks that we had bought in case the wildfires continued. We’re also working on sourcing millions of more to donate. I hope you’re all staying healthy and safe!

The mom and pop style innovation is happening, too, as creative minds come together to work on easing the shortage of masks. My sister lives in Montana and sent along an article from her local newspaper about a doctor who is using 3D printers to make masks. Pretty cool, right?

In Billings, Montana, the state’s largest city, surgeons are being asked to use only one mask per day instead of using a new one for each patient. The drastic measure is being taken in order to stretch out their supply, hoping to not completely run out. A neurosurgeon went to work to find a better solution.


“We commonly change those masks out between every case for sanitary reasons,” said Dr. Dusty Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic. “Starting about two weeks ago, the supply became limited enough that we have now been only able to use one mask per day.”

Last Thursday night he had an idea. He teamed up with a local dentist who has four 3D printers and his son, who has experience in design. They developed a plastic surgical mask that can be used 6 to 10 times. A template was used on the son’s face and it can be scaled up or down to fit other faces. The mask can be cleaned between uses by wiping them down and sanitizing them. The masks take about two hours to print and cost a dollar each to produce.

Then another company in Billings came up with a timesaving solution – a machine that can cut dozens of inserts at once instead of one surgical mask being cut at a time.

“Essentially, we can use hospital grade filtration material that fits right there inside the mask and can be massed produced,” said Richardson.

The inserts are made of hospital grade, HEPA filtration material.

So, in a matter of days, a local solution to help in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic was created and expanded upon to increase the supply of masks in that city. This is something other cities can do, too, with the help of 3D printers. Richardson is partnering with others locally to get masks widely distributed, mostly for free.


Billings Public Schools has offered their help with the use of the districts 3D printers.

“We want this to be free to everybody,” said Richardson. “We want to disseminate the information so that people can start making these things.”

“My hope with this is that in communities that are experiencing critical shortages of these materials they can take what materials they have left on hand and use them and extend them and make them last longer,” Richardson said.

It’s a great story. A surgeon, a dentist, and a son came together“Let’s build a mask,” said Colton, a trained microbiologist who also helps healthcare professionals with marketing. And they did.

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