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Pandemic spawns innovation, solutions for medical equipment supply and demand

Manufacturers, companies reinvent to combat COVID-19 during pandemic


KeySmart, an Illinois firm better known for turning the classic keyring into a Swiss army knife with a Bluetooth tracker, is marketing its Nano Stylus, a rubber-tipped pen so you don’t have to hold the same pointer as the person before you in the checkout aisle – a useful tool if you input information using tablets. (Photo/CleanKey

“What do you do with rocket scientists when they stay at home?” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine asked President Trump in the White House Cabinet Room on April 24, 2020, to showcase three devices developed by the world’s premier space agency and adapted for the fight against COVID-19.

NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised a high-pressure ventilator tailored specifically for COVID-19 patients called Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally (VITAL), under a fast-track review by the FDA for emergency use authorization (EUA). Employees at Armstrong Flight Research Center partnering with Virgin Galactic and neighboring organizations developed a pressurized helmet that acts like a CPAP machine, forcing oxygen into a patient’s lungs

But it’s the AMBUStat that shows the real promise for the EMS community. Bridenstine told President Trump that a surface decontamination system developed initially to prevent robots from contaminating Mars with Earth-bound microbes is being used in ambulances. The device, somewhat larger than a trauma box, could soon be put to use in public buildings. “Think of it as a fogger,” Bridenstine explained. “It will fog the room, and every surface in the room will then be sterilized. No coronavirus.” The AMBUStat, which exerts atomized sterilant, “doesn’t leave a film on any of the surfaces,” Bridenstine told the president. “You don’t have to wipe down the surface.”

The World Health Organization published a list of items crucial to carrying out the fight against COVID-19 on March 30, 2020, but the stories of innovation, applied imagination and collective creativity are inspiring. And your agency might find just the intended uses these innovators didn’t see at first either.

3D printers get their day

Open source manufacturing is playing a growing part in the war on coronavirus.

Door knobs, elevators buttons and the like are some of the most commonly touched items in daily life – and a risk to anyone who follows within upwards of three days behind a COVID-19 carrier.

Using a 3D printer, a Welsh citizen designed and fabricated a hands-free door handle – actually, an arm – which people can use to pull open doors. The design was distributed online for free download. A British peer developed a similar device called a hygienehook that could prove useful for EMS crews to access a symptomatic patient or a suspect entranceway.

Closer to home, Texas company Lazarus 3D began making and selling face shields in bulk. Originating in Wisconsin, the Badger Shield is another example of how 3D printers are making PPE available online as open-source designs – mobilizing engineering students, corporate partnerships and old-fashioned DIY.

Standard medical research accelerates

Since the FDA was granted broader emergency use authorities to review and grant trials and uses, pharmaceutical companies and others in the healthcare industry moved rapidly against COVID-19, often in the same direction.

Abbott Laboratories and Roche got early praise from the White House for their efforts to come up with a rapid test. EUAs were issued for tests that can affordably deliver results in minutes. COVID-19 has accelerated healthcare delivery to the point where telehealth takes on new meaning, exploding time and space between patients and providers. The FDA has issued a EUA to LabCorp for the first at-home test where residents can apply a swab themselves under a doctor’s supervision.

In fact, providers can remotely examine patients with the Vici robot, first unveiled in 2017, though a nurse or other assistant must be in the room to put on a cuff. And Vici has competition.

Telepresence is a thing; the Ohmni Supercam similarly permit remote video interactions, and it’s portable. Virtual doctors’ visits, remote triage and patient-caregiver interaction through mobile phones could be the order of the day. Yet, many facilities were caught unequipped for their physicians to regularly practice telehealth, which could see normalized uses for outpatient care.

Rutgers researchers obtained an EUA for saliva testing while others worked at modeling community spread with environmental conditions like wind speed taken into account, “expanding their ability to track what continues to be a very challenging environment in New Jersey,” Vice President Mike Pence said at an April 24 briefing.

Face shields and hand sanitizer

We’ve all heard how distillers retooled to make hand sanitizer, a slightly more productive use for all that alcohol. But early on in the crisis, stockpiles of face shields for frontline workers dwindled quickly as manufacturing capacity had yet to ramp up. Companies whose materials were near-enough to the filmed plastics needed stepped up.

On April 8, Evans Drumheads tweeted that parent company’s D’Addario’s engineers had found a way to contribute by transforming drumheads into protective face shields for medical workers on the front lines. Dubbed “Project Excelsior” after home state New York’s motto, it took their team just three days to devise a prototype. “Using our FDA-approved Dynatomy brand, we will be mass-producing the Dynatomy face shield in the Evans drumhead facility, which the NYSEDC [the state’s Economic Development Council] approved to stay open,” Drumheads said.

The company’s goal was to ramp up to a capacity of 100,000 face shields per week by the end of April. “It’s our intention to manufacture these shields as long as they’re needed in New York or anywhere around the globe,” Chief Innovation Officer Jim D’Addario said in a statement. “While we cannot match the immeasurable efforts of these selfless heroes, we feel an immense responsibility to do our part in overcoming the COVID-19 crisis.”

What’s old is anew to combat pandemic

“The Wall Street Journal” outlined in mid-April how True Value converted lines used to fill paint jugs to instead make FDA-approved hand sanitizer, along with home paper products – one of the first items to empty off grocery shelves at the onset of crisis. With the reliance on masks not just for healthcare workers but also citizens heading out for groceries or to work as governors rescind stay-at-home orders, masks became a fashion statement practically overnight.

Wearable technologies are getting a boost, too. Health diagnostics was already popular for joggers and fitness nuts. The BioSticker developed by BioIntelliSense can both measure temperature, heart and respiratory rates, and convey results to healthcare providers in near-real time. Ava, a Swiss maker of smart bracelets used to track maternal health, has lent its sensory technology to a study of whether it can detect early infection – another key to defeating coronavirus since it has become known that carriers can remain asymptomatic for weeks.

KeySmart, an Illinois firm better known for turning the classic keyring into a Swiss army knife with a Bluetooth tracker, is marketing its Nano Stylus, a rubber-tipped pen so you don’t have to hold the same pointer as the person before you in the checkout aisle – a useful tool if you input information using tablets. Its CleanKey, which looks like a bass knuckle with a hook, can be used to pull door handles, to point on touchscreens and push germ-laden elevator buttons.

Houston-area industrial painting and coatings contractor AK Wet Works outfitted its vapor sandblasting machines as disinfectant applicators they call “AK Covid Killers” for application on a range of surfaces.

California energy storage company Bloom Energy, which makes distributed power generations systems for commercial properties and hospitals, took to refurbishing ventilators sitting in the state’s stockpile. And Safran, which usually makes heavy fabrics items like cockpit seats and parachutes, has gotten into masks and gowns, while a Belgian branch makes spare parts to meet the operational demands of ventilators.

In China, cell phone maker Foxconn started producing face masks as a way to revive production.

Easing the supply chain

If you’re interested in still more innovations from around the country and the world aimed at suppressing COVID-19 and getting humanity past pandemic, this Forbes list is for you.

And if you handle inventory, UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, based in Geneva) may make managing supply easier with its mapped directory of categorized solutions for bulk purchasers and consumers alike. “The map is designed to provide information to government officials, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and others to support the response to COVID-19 and address the pandemic and its impact.”

The Ohio Manufacturing Alliance created the Repurposing Project to ease supply chain issues by linking producers with suppliers and end-users. The State of Missouri and Google have similarly built a portal to link registered suppliers with healthcare providers.

“During World War II,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote: “An amazing amount of innovation, including radar, reliable torpedoes and code-breaking, helped end the war faster. This will be the same with the pandemic.”

One “Washington Examiner” column took it a step further. “Everywhere we look we see innovation,” Charles Sauer wrote. “Everywhere we look we see hope, we see perseverance, we see action.”

Read next: Rapid Response: When demand outstrips supply: Decompressing the system by doing the best for the most

Michael Kirby has worked since 2008 for a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web. Kirby graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2007 with a BA in philosophy, minoring in history. He is interested in many legislative topics, and always has an eye on public safety-related news because he grew up around the firehouse.