Local business and high school team up to protect health care workers

A shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 epidemic has prompted innovative thinking worldwide. Locally, the tech company Luxel and the Friday Harbor High School Science Technology Engineering and Math program have partnered to create face shields for medical providers.

“I contacted [high school principal] Fred Woods to ask if their 3D printers were available. He put me in touch with Sam Garson, who heads up the STEM program,” Travis Ayers, owner of Luxel said, explaining how the project came about.

Due to safety precautions, students have not been personally involved in the project. Garson has been manning the school’s 3D printer in producing the shields and posting about the project on social media to keep students and the public up to speed, he said.

Luxel designs and fabricates highly specialized optical filters and has been located in Friday Harbor for decades. Ayers purchased the company in 2007 and explained that it is considered essential by virtue of the fact that quite a few of their customers are also deemed essential. Ayers added that the company has been limiting the number of staff members on-site at any one time by using remote work and spreading out shifts. Luxel staff is also taking all of the recommended precautions for cleanliness and social distancing, he added.

According to Ayers, Luxel has 3D printers of its own but said he was aware the school had printers equipped for the job and thought the project would make a great partnership. Face shields are an important part of personal protective equipment similar to masks, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Face shields are one option for protecting the face from pathogen-laden droplets. Although they are bulkier than goggles or safety glasses, face shields offer the advantage of guarding the entire face from contamination,” the health organization wrote on its website. For more information, visit www.nih.gov/.

There are many styles of face shields available and, according to Garson, Ayers took the lead researching which design would be the most effective for the health care providers. Ayers even reached out to local Dr. William House as well as staff at PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center for their feedback.

“We chose to produce a design that was vetted by the National Institute of Health,” Ayers said.

There are designs on the NIH website that can be downloaded after having some clinical use and approval, Ayers added. To make this particular NIH approved shield, he explained, a 3D printer is used to extrude a fine polymer filament through a heated nozzle and the headband portion is built up layer-by-layer. Production on the Luxel printers takes approximately 10 hours to create four shields. Once the shields are printed, they are 3-hole punched with a piece of acetate, a synthetic filament, and mounted on the headband with small studs.

“We also provide latex-free rubber bands to hold in on the person’s head,” Ayers said. “The design can use an elastic band, but that quickly became unavailable to purchase.”

Although the high school’s STEM program has seven 3D printers only two are appropriate for the project, Garson explained. Those two are 5 years old and Garson rebuilt them earlier this year. On a good day, he is able to print one shield in three hours, he said.

“I have been spending a lot of time babysitting them as they print,” Garson added with a laugh. “Ironically I had put new 3-D printers on my summer to-do list.”

Garson started a crowdfunding page on education fundraising site Donors Choose, to help raise the money for a new printer so that the students can return to a total of six newer 3D printers when school resumes. To donate, visit https://bit.ly/3f6ggv0.

So far, the project has supplied more than 200 face shields, according to Ayers. They have been donated to both local and regional health care providers. San Juan’s Eventide Health and the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management have received 50, according to Ayers. Peace Island Medical Center didn’t need any, Ayers said, however, several local dentists requested them. Some have gone to providers on Orcas, as well.

Additional shields were given to Whatcom Unified Command — a joint organization formed to respond to emergencies such as the COVID-19 epidemic, comprised of every local jurisdiction in Whatcom County. The group is similar to the San Juan County COVID Response Team. To learn more about the San Juan County team, visit sjccovid.com.

Although, until now, students have not been active in the face shield project, going forward, Garson hopes to involve the students when they return in the fall. They hopefully will have new printers on which they can print.

“Designing PPE is an important skill set,” Garson said, noting that while the COVID-19 crisis will eventually disappear, the need for innovative technology for medical equipment will continue. He also pointed out that rural areas worldwide have been creatively working to address the shortage of PPE.

Garson has also been printing ear savers.

“Ear savers are a little plastic clip that holds the masks band directly off the ear, making them more comfortable, especially for those who have to wear them all day,” he explained.

Unlike the more time-consuming shields, the 3D printer is able to make 20 ear savers an hour. He has been donating them to essential workers throughout San Juan.

“When Travis approached me about face shields, I got really excited,” Garson said. “This community has been so supportive of the school, so it feels really good to be able to give something tangible back,” Garson said.