Medical workers face big mask shortage. This UF doctor came up with way to make many

When reports of war-like shortages at hospitals first popped up across the country, Bruce Spiess, an anesthesiologist at the University of Florida Health, woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. 

Stocks of N95 respirator masks were already dwindling at his department. Anxiety grew among staff members over how to protect medical employees in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In his overnight epiphany, Spiess, who has specialized in open heart surgeries for nearly 40 years, zeroed in on a thin blue fabric that is used to wrap sterile surgical instruments to protect them from airborne contamination. Under normal circumstances, this piece of cloth, the Halyard 600, ends up in the trash as soon as doctors unwrap the instruments they need.

But it occurred to Spiess that night almost two weeks ago that perhaps hospitals could give the Halyard 600 a second life.

“We have right in our hands, all the time, in every hospital. We have a material that’s really pretty impervious to bacteria,” said Spiess, 65. “Don’t know about viruses, but pretty impervious to bacteria, extremely impervious to dust and I wondered if we could create masks that way.”

So they did. 

They picked apart an N95 mask to look at what it had inside. They made several prototypes and tested 20 different people with a saffron spray to confirm few particles entered through the mask. In a matter of one week, Spiess had rallied surgeons, nurses, janitors, engineers, scrub techs, costume designers and others in the Gainesville community to sew the masks. Out of every sheet of Halyard 600, which is made of polypropylene, volunteers can make 36 masks.

As officials with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention are weighing whether to recommend that everyone cover their face outside regardless of symptoms, more citizens are taking to creative Do-It-Yourself mask-making. But most masks at home are not engineered with Halyard 600 or undergo the rigorous quality-control of the masks being purposed for UF’s medical staff.

Every person who receives one of the UF masks needs to be fit-tested, and their mask will be labeled with their name. Each mask would ideally work for 96 hours, or four days. After every 24-hour cycle, each mask has to be sterilized with U.V. lighting before it is re-used. As of Tuesday, none of the hundreds of masks that have already been sewn had been handed out, as they waited to be sterilized and fit-tested.

The logistics for the UF anesthesiology department team have gotten cumbersome, as the demand for the masks has grown and hundreds of volunteers have stepped up to help in under two weeks. At the helm of the operation is Spiess, and a team of UF medical staff who have temporarily halted elective surgeries or are taking time away from operating rooms to limit their own exposure to the novel coronavirus.

“We have about a third of our workforce that would otherwise be doing elective surgeries sitting around saying, ‘Well, when they need me, they’ll call me,’” Spiess said. “So you know, we have many people who are available to lend hands and who are extremely motivated to say, ‘What can I do to support my team members in the medical care community?’”

Still, the masks are not meant to be a direct replacement for N95 masks. Spiess warns the current models are not being professionally manufactured, even though they are being checked for quality. 

The project has also joined efforts with Gainesville Covid Masks, a collaboration of dozens of community leaders who were making masks out of cloth and experimenting with other materials.

“Today is a big day for me, I’ve got between 400 and 500 masks coming in today and I need to quality control and arrange for pickup,” said Georgetta Graham, a 63-year-old retired Gainesville resident who designed the two mask designs thought up by Spiess and his team at UF Health. 

“It’s a little bit wild, but they need them yesterday and we need to take care of our medical staff,” Graham said.

As the effort grows, more hospitals have expressed interest in making masks. Graham made tutorial videos explaining how to make the two prototypes of the protective masks on the UF website.

“We have a number of large companies that have pitched in to help,” said Nelson Algarra, assistant professor of anesthesiology at UF. “We know that what we’re doing is not sustainable; we cannot continue to make these masks here. Right now, we’re doing what we can with what we have available.”

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