Masks for Docs Harnesses 3D Tech to Fortify COVID-19’s Front-Line Health Care Workers

All volunteer group is getting personal protective equipment where it’s needed most


Masks for Docs volunteers at Native Hostel (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Since forming on March 22 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, global foundation Masks for Docs – which now comprises 5,000-plus volunteers among 100 chapters across six continents – has delivered more than 100,000 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to health care organizations in need. For its part, the Austin division – based at Native Hostel – has dispatched more than 5,000 face shields (thanks to 42 local volunteer 3D printers) to 100 Central Texas health care facilities, including major hospitals, emergency clinics, hospices, and elder care centers.

"What we're trying to do is forestall the calamity and get ahead of the tragedy that's happening in places like New York City for our own community," says Native Hostel co-owner Anthony Madrid.

The Austin chapter's operation is largely DIY and crowdsourced. The 3D printers donate their own filament to produce hundreds of headbands per day. A group of motorcycle couriers (led by volunteer coordinator Moira Zinn) then delivers those frames to the hostel. There, another group hole-punches plastic binder covers, which fit onto the headbands' corresponding pegs to complete the face shields.

"Humans are resilient and clever in nature, and we always find a way to fight back ... and use our creativity to overcome problems," says Austin chapter Program Director Reza Piri, who met Madrid through their mutual attorney. "It's like, 'What would MacGyver do?'"

Moving forward, Minuteman Press will donate hole-punching services, increasing weekly yield to 2,000 face shields, which are essential PPE components for health care professionals and first responders.

"The [face shields] definitely help with the preservation of N95s," says Dr. Kevin Pham of Baylor Scott & White Health, one local outfit now supplied by Masks for Docs. "They prolong the life of [N95s] ... by keeping them covered and protected from droplets and particulates."

The labors of "makers" like the Austin group combined with initiatives to redistribute donated supplies including masks and gowns in other cities are easing the worldwide woes of what's been commonly referred to as a "war for masks," according to Masks for Docs Head of Global Communications Melanie Ensign.

"We can move a lot faster than some of those big efforts [like 3M]," she says. "They're focused on large quantity and bulk, whereas a grassroots organization like this, we care about every single item. So if someone only has three masks, we still care about that and want to get them to the health care workers on the front lines."

Using locally sourced materials like the binder covers also diminishes the strain on the "traditional medical supply," adds Piri. But those purchases are currently out-of-pocket, so any direct donations (via www.masksfordocs.com/austin-donate) will cover such initial costs as well as additional protection and sanitation products for volunteers.

Organizers estimate the Austin chapter now has about 100 rotating volunteers, and more will be needed as operations pick up speed, ideally evolving to produce other types of PPE such as 3D-printed respirator parts.

"What we're focused on is bringing in more 3D printers and funds to keep them going and supplied with materials," says Madrid. "Hopefully we can address the issues that we have right here at home, then also start producing stuff for other communities and people who are having problems around the country."

Prospective volunteers and health care facilities in need of face shields may apply via forms on www.masksfordocs.com.


See photo gallery online at austinchronicle.com/photos.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

COVID-19, Masks for Docs, Anthony Madrid, Native Hostel, 3-D printing, PPE, personal protective equipment, Moira Zinn, Reza Piri, Minuteman Press, Kevin Pham, Baylor Scott & White, N95 mask

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