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As Medical Equipment Shortage Persists, Dallas Volunteers Begin Making Face Shields

A CNC router cuts pieces for a plastic face shield.
A CNC router cuts pieces for a plastic face shield.
Better Block

As hospitals in Texas and nationwide face a dire shortage of protective equipment, volunteers are stepping in to try to fill the gap.

Volunteers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are manufacturing plastic face shields to donate to hospitals, senior centers and healthcare workers who are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General released the results of a survey of hospital administrators conducted over five days in late March. Respondents said they worried that a shortage of personal protective equipment was threatening their ability to keep healthcare workers safe as they treated patients infected with COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes. The items in highest demand were masks, including plastic face shields.

Face shields are clear plastic visors that fit onto headbands, covering the wearer's entire face. They're meant to be worn along with other protective equipment like N95 respirator masks.

One of the groups that has recently begun manufacturing the shields is Better Block, a nonprofit based in Oak Cliff. When the world is working as it normally does, Better Block helps cities and community groups reshape neighborhoods, creating public spaces for people to come together. As part of that work, the foundation has equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters to build community features like street furniture.

When the coronavirus outbreak began in Dallas, all that work stopped, said Krista Nightengale, the foundation's managing director. But Nightengale said the foundation wanted to find a way to help. They read stories about other organizations around the country using 3D printers to make plastic face shields for hospital personnel. So they decided to give that a try using open-source plans from a furniture house in Portland, Oregon.

The problem, Nightengale said, was that it took nearly three hours to produce a single shield. With hospitals already running short of the shields and workers going through hundreds of them in a single shift, Nightengale said the foundation knew they had to come up with a way to produce more shields more quickly.

So instead of 3D printing the shields, foundation staffers tried cutting them out using a computer numerical control (CNC) router, a precise, computer-controlled machine the foundation already had in its workshop. Cutting visors for face shields instead of printing them allowed them to make more than 200 visors in the same time it had taken to print one.

Working from the plans they'd gotten from the Portland furniture house, staffers from the foundation worked out a design that would produce face shield visors in batches of 100, which could then be turned into completed face shields with a three-hole punch and a tie. Once the design was complete, the foundation put it on their website and began contacting other CNC router operators they knew around the country, telling them it was there.

CNC routers are versatile tools, Nightengale said. They're normally used to cut wood, but they can also cut plastic and polycarbonate. The routers could show up in maker spaces like Better Block, at universities or in cabinet shops. At least one cabinet maker has contacted the organization asking how he could use his equipment to make face shields, she said.

Over the last two weeks, Nightengale said she's heard from operators in cities across the country and as far away as Kenya and New Zealand, all wanting to know more about how to make face shields for hospitals in their areas. They've also gotten donations to help the foundation make more face shields for hospitals in North Texas.

Most of the requests for face shields the group has gotten have come from individual people trying to find personal protective equipment for themselves or a family member who works in a medical facility, Nightengale said. But the foundation has also gotten requests from institutions like hospitals and senior centers.

A week ago, it seemed like demand for the visors far outpaced Better Block's ability to make them, Nightengale said. But over the last few days, she said, that dynamic has flipped. Whereas just a few days ago, most of the emails she got were from hospitals and medical workers asking how they could get donated visors, now they're mostly from people with CNC routers asking how they can help.

Nightengale is taking that as a good sign. She hopes it means the supply chain is starting to catch up to the increased demand for medical equipment. If that means Better Block can get out of the business of making and donating face shields, so much the better.

"I don't want us to be needed in this capacity," she said.

One of the operators who went looking for a way to help is Christopher Thomas, the automation engineering coordinator in the innovation lab at Dallas County Community College District's Bill J. Priest Institute.

The innovation lab specializes in helping people with an idea for a product develop and build prototypes. But when the coronavirus began to gain a foothold in North Texas, the institute, along with all the district's other campuses, was shut down and classes were moved online.

But Thomas said he didn't feel right about sitting at home and putting together online courses while hospitals across the region were running short of basic supplies. So he and some colleagues started thinking of ways to help. The innovation lab has the equipment to make all kinds of supplies, he said, but they needed to decide what would help the most. He briefly considered trying to make ventilators, he said, but when General Motors and Ford announced they were refitting factories to make the machines, he knew that trying to do the same thing in his shop didn't make sense. Besides, he said, the stakes for ventilators are very high.

"I don't want to make something that could maybe save somebody's life but it could maybe kill somebody," he said.

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So Thomas landed on the idea of making face shields. He downloaded a design from Better Block and reworked it so it would work with the laser cutter in his lab. He worked with a nurse to figure out how to make the shield fit hospitals' protocols for sterilization and safety. Then he asked a few colleagues to take over his online classes so he could devote his time to building face shields.

On Wednesday, there were 50 of Thomas' shields in use at hospitals and other medical facilities around the DFW area. He's looking to make more as quickly as he can, he said. Right now, he could make as many as 1,400 a day, but he's having a hard time sourcing the plastic he needs to make the visor. Because other people across the country are also trying to make face shields, certain kinds of plastic are in high demand, he said.

Since he started making the shields, Thomas has had several medical facilities ask him for donated shields. Individual healthcare workers, too, have asked for the shields, saying their hospitals had run short, he said.

One of the recipients is Methodist Dallas Medical Center, where Thomas has sent 12 shields. Ryan Owens, a spokesman for Methodist, said the hospital is "grateful for our community and academic partners who are stepping up to help during this difficult time."

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