Montanans are helping solve the problem of critical shortages of medical masks as coronavirus continues to spread. Sewing machines and 3D printers and lots of volunteers are making reusable masks to protect healthcare workers from the novel coronavirus.
In Billings, Dr. Dusty Richardson, dentist Dr. Spencer Zaugg and his son Colton Zaugg came up with a way to 3D print reusable masks.
"It’s a creative solution to a bad problem. I wouldn’t claim that it’s a perfect solution. I wouldn’t claim that it couldn't be improved upon and that's why we included the files out there so that people, engineers, companies are able to help to solve the shortage," says Dr. Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic.
Each 3D printed mask costs about $1 to produce. Richardson says they’re donating every mask they make locally to Billings Clinic and sharing their design for free.
Billings Clinic is looking into mass production of the masks. The startup costs for mass production would be a minimum of $20,000, which they hope to raise through donations to the Billings Clinic Foundation.
It takes about three hours to print each plastic mask, which looks almost like a gas mask without the filters on the side. Instead, this design has a square slot in the front for a replaceable filter.
Richardson says the masks can use either N95 respirator filters or a single surgical mask can be cut up and used as six filters.
"The idea is to use less mask material for each use," Richardson says.
Richardson says the 3D printed masks haven’t been approved as a replacement for the N95 respirators.
Flowmark Hitech Filters Company in Billings initially made 200 filters for the prototype mask. Owner Shane Rekdal says he can make as many filters as needed and has already received orders for filters from all over the country.
Over in Livingston, Karen Searle started organizing efforts to sew reusable masks with other volunteers in the Gallatin County area last week. Gallatin County has the highest concentration of coronavirus cases.
"The mask is important but what’s really the story is how the community has come together to generate a support system, a network to build these masks and send a message. We love our healthcare providers," Searle says.
The Facebook page dedicated to coordinating mask making has well over a thousand members. Since the Bozeman Daily Chronicle published a story about the sewn masks, Searle has been inundated with calls, emails and texts from people who want to donate time, money or expertise.
"One hospital called and said we have our doctors and our nurses sewing masks. I said oh my gosh you got to empower the community, they want to do this," Searle says.
The sewn masks have a pocket where a filter is inserted. The filters can be replaced and masks washed for multiple uses. Michelle Elder, a registered nurse for Bozeman Health Clinic, will conduct quality control as masks are donated and after each wash.
It’s worth noting that both replacements are about as effective as surgical masks, not necessarily the N95 respirator the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to protect against coronavirus.