CHARLESTON — The West Virginia National Guard, in collaboration with researchers from West Virginia University, academic institutions, community and technical colleges, as well as business and industry leaders from across the state of West Virginia have developed solutions to address the critical personal protective equipment shortage due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the novel coronavirus pandemic has nearly exhausted stockpiles of medical gear across the nation, PPE such as masks serve as a first line of defense for medical professionals, long-term care workers, and first responders who serve on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.
The shortage of N95 masks, in particular, caused educators, businesses, and academic institutions from around the state to collaborate and develop a mask and filter that would alleviate the strain on the supply chain while looking at advancements for design, fit, and decontamination.
“I’m unbelievably proud that even in these difficult times, we’re seeing yet another example of West Virginians doing what we do when there’s a problem – we step up and work together to build a solution,” Gov. Jim Justice said. “And in this situation, developing protective equipment for the heroic men and women on the front lines of fighting this terrible virus is a solution that could truly save lives.
“I’ve said for a long time now if we want to beat this virus we have to band together and be West Virginia strong in every way. That’s exactly what we’re doing. I thank everyone involved in this important effort from the bottom of my heart.”
Initially, prototype N95 masks were developed and refined using 3-D printers from the state’s network of colleges and universities.
“Our four-year institutions, medical schools, and community and technical colleges have been using their expertise in design, engineering, and medicine to collaborate with the West Virginia National Guard and get PPE to the front lines of this battle in West Virginia,” said Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Interim Chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission and Chancellor of the Community and Technical College System. “We knew we had the tools and experts in place to make this happen, and it is incredible to see our higher education community come together to protect our fellow West Virginians.”
Through research and development, the WVNG reached out to WVU’s Center for Inhalation Toxicology (iTOX) led by Timothy Nurkiewicz. iTOX includes the state-of-the-art WVU Inhalation Facility where researchers can test the effects of inhaled particles, even simulated COVID-19 droplets. After numerous tests, researchers determined that air filter material from home furnaces could effectively obstruct coronavirus particles.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Nurkiewicz said. “We dream and come up with a bunch of crazy ideas but working with the military has really been enlightening and rewarding. They are an awesome group of people, and we are very fortunate to have their service.”
From there, additional refinement of the mask design was incorporated by WVU’s Dr. Matthew Dietz, from WVU Orthopaedics, who brought in additional 3D-printing expertise from Chris Toothman, Coordinator of Drafting/Design Engineering Technology at Pierpont Community and Technical College, and added common window/door gaskets to the mask. This addition earned the mask the designation of “pass” for clinical fit testing performed by Occupational Medicine.
After a working filtration system was developed and the design finalized, it fell to the West Virginia National Guard, which stood up Task Force Innovation to coordinate the production of PPE throughout the state.
"We're working with partners throughout the state, both within the military, local jurisdictions, civilian agencies, and the school systems to coordinate the jumpstarting of 3-D printing production," said 1st Lt. Joseph Moore, a member of Task Force Innovation.
1st Lt. Schuyler Frazier, also with Task Force Innovation, lauded the coordination and sacrifices that partners from around the state have made.
"Our local partners have used their own time and money to get products to us, and have been vital in assisting us in developing an approved prototype," Frazier said. "3-D printers are not made for manufacturing on a large scale, but they're doing what they can and being very accommodating."
The typical production of a single mask is around an hour and 45 minutes to two hours, while each printer runs around seven or eight hours a day using a network of almost 400 printers. Foreseeing this issue, they are working on other avenues such as cast molding to fill in the gaps of 3-D printing.
Between both types of production – 3-D printing and cast molding – it is expected that the network of West Virginians working on this project can produce 200 masks each week.
A critical component of the PPE shortage is the single-use factor for masks and face shields, in particular.
Capitalizing on recent approval from the Food and Drug Administration to utilize hydrogen peroxide vapors to decontaminate N95 masks, the Guard, in conjunction with the West Virginia Hospital Association, is testing this new mask through the decontamination and sanitization process. In addition, they are looking into establishing regional quick reaction teams that could travel around the state to offer mobile mask sanitization for health care facilities that could potentially save N95 masks for reuse up to 20 times.
While addressing the N95 mask shortfalls, members of the Guard have leveraged sewing capabilities of parachute riggers and other skilled Guardsmen and women to sew face masks. These face masks use a layer of Gortex and cotton material, which have undergone testing at WVU to meet medical guidelines, will allow the approved mask to go to medical personnel on the front lines.
The Guard has purchased Gortex material from around the country and had it sent to four major West Virginia National Guard facilities in Camp Dawson, Charleston, Martinsburg, and Eleanor that can sew the materials, Frazier explained.
The facility at Camp Dawson has been producing masks for over a week, while other facilities are in the beginning stages of production with nearly 20 West Virginia National Guard personnel supporting at the four sites. Outreach is also taking place through local businesses and organizations who could contribute to producing these masks.
Production could reach as high as 2,500 masks per day with the ultimate goal of being able to produce enough masks for every West Virginian.
“The West Virginia National Guard and the multitude of partners and agencies invested in this work will continue to refine these products and look for additional innovative ideas to address the current and future needs for our state,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard. “We have an opportunity to make a huge impact not only here in West Virginia, but potentially throughout the United States in addressing a critical need during this pandemic. I am exceptionally impressed by the work of our National Guardsmen and women as well as the dedicated team of researchers at WVU and the academic institutions, private businesses, and organizations who have stepped up to address these challenges.”
“This collaboration illustrates the best of West Virginia,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia's COVID-19 Czar. “Combining the best minds and resources from our universities, community and technical colleges with our National Guard and production facilities brings novel solutions to our shortage in PPE. Rising to the occasion and rising together is what makes West Virginia truly special. We are indebted to all involved in this transformational effort to support our front line and essential workers.”