Face shields for frontline health workers

Biomedical Engineering Program Director Stephanie Willerth holds a medical grade face shield created in the UVic-led initiative. (UVic Photo Services)

While UVic may seem strangely quiet these days, there are pockets of activity on campus where researchers are responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inside an engineering lab that has become the hub of a community effort to protect frontline health workers, stacks of medical-grade face shields are being prepared for delivery to Island Health.

“We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worldwide shortage of disposable face masks,” said Stephanie Willerth, who leads the initiative and is director of UVic’s Biomedical Engineering Program. “So being able to use resources and production capacity from within the local community to produce face shields for our healthcare workers is really important.”

As a top research-intensive university in Canada, UVic knew it could contribute to the COVID-19 response. Although all but essential on-campus research was temporarily suspended on March 26, deans could approve exemptions for research and activities related to COVID-19.

Projects and research areas that are addressing the COVID-19 crisis include digital technologies, biomedical and biochemistry, genome research, proteomics, nursing, law, mathematics, social sciences, exercise science and 3D printing of supplies. There are approximately two dozen exempted research projects to date with more being proposed.

“UVic is one of Canada’s leading research universities and our researchers know they can have a vital impact working with our communities, governments, industry and other partners to tackle this global challenge,” said Lisa Kalynchuk, vice-president of research.

“I am proud of the commitment and innovation of our researchers as we continue to work together finding answers to the complexities of COVID-19.”

As of early May, Willerth’s team, with help from many community partners, had delivered almost 2,000 face shields. The initiative is expected to provide a total of up to 8,000 shields at no cost to Island Health, local doctors and others on the Island.​

The face shield’s components are being produced in an unlikely but impressive network of local businesses, research labs and even homes across the region. The components are then dropped in a bin outside UVic’s Engineering Lab Wing, where Willerth’s team inspects, assembles and packages them.

Coast Capital Savings has donated $10,000 to support the initiative. In addition, numerous organizations and individuals have donated their time, equipment and materials.

“At a time when there is a need to come together like never before, it is heartwarming to see the ingenuity and creativity such as what we’re seeing from our partners at UVic,” said Maureen Young, director of Community Leadership at Coast Capital Savings. “Coast Capital Savings is humbled to be a small part of helping our frontline health workers as they do the most important work there is at this unprecedented moment in time.”

The idea for the initiative was hatched in an online health-focused chatroom when local doctors and nurses raised concerns about a shortage of disposable face masks and face shields that provide additional protection. UVic researchers and others began exploring possible solutions, settling on an open-source design that meets Health Canada’s specifications.

After Island Health approved a prototype that was produced by UVic and community partners, the call went out to local companies and individuals with the ability and capacity to machine or 3D print its components. About 20 3D printers are now working around the clock.

The transparent shield—which must also be made to exact specifications—is being laser cut by Foreman CNC Machining, a company in Sidney owned by UVic alumnus Chris Foreman. Some of the elasticized straps, which keep the shields in place, have been donated by community partners on Salt Spring Island.

Several UVic alumni are involved in the initiative. James Tyrwhitt-Drake is playing a key role on several fronts, including sourcing materials, organizing volunteers and running a “print farm” in his own home made up of eight 3D printers, some of them borrowed from UVic’s Science Venture program.

“My primary hope is to save lives by supporting the heroic health care providers on the front line of this pandemic. They are putting themselves at risk looking after the people we love, and we are literally making armour for them to fight this virus,” said Tyrwhitt-Drake, who graduated in 2014. He currently works at Bryn Finer Studios, producing 3D topographic maps for Parks Canada visitor centres, and also as an instructor with Science Venture.

In Willerth’s lab, located in UVic’s Medical Sciences Building, a machine that emits ultra-violet rays is one of the methods being used to sterilize the shields and their packaging before they are sent to Island Health and other recipients.

“Island Health has been working with Vancouver Island post-secondary institutions, including the University of Victoria, and other local producers to develop 3D printed and laser cut plastic prototypes for face shields that meet health system standards,” said James Hanson, Vice President, Operations and Support Services, at Island Health.

“We are grateful for these community efforts and partnerships.”

Not long ago, the UVic UV-emitting machine was being used by students and researchers for entirely different purposes: primarily to grow cells and tissues used in the study and treatment of a range of medical conditions.

But a lot has changed since then. Willerth and her colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering and the Coast Capital Innovation Centre are hiring a larger cohort of co-op students than they usually do during the summer term to work on other COVID-19-related projects.

Interested in helping?

The face shield is 3D printed using an open source file created by Prusa Printers. People or businesses in the community who have 3D printers and the required materials (PLA and PETG) can help by printing off components and dropping them in the large container outside the doors of UVic’s Engineering Lab Wing (across from Parking Lot A) or at Phillips Beer Shop, 2010 Government St. (12-7 p.m. daily). Phillips Brewery is also donating 3D printed parts.