Engineering a Solution
In her career as a biomechanical engineer, Christina Salas, PhD, has grown accustomed to delayed gratification, as she patiently pursues the basic research that she hopes someday might be translated into a new medical device or treatment.
But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic came to New Mexico in March, Salas, an assistant professor in The University of New Mexico Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation, has found herself taking a direct approach to addressing the critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Salas and a team of volunteers, engineering students and research assistants have been manning 3D printers that have churned out thousands of face masks and face shields capable of protecting wearers from the novel coronavirus, most of which have found their way to destinations on the Navajo Nation.
And this month, she and flight nurse Laura Kief Shaffer, her partner on the mask-printing project, are featured among “The Badass 50, Healthcare Workers Who Are Saving the Day” in InStyle Magazine.
“It has been a really amazing experience, and people are so grateful – that’s the best part of it,” says Salas, who has been getting out of the lab to visit Navajo chapter houses and chat with members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation.
The effort was launched in the spring after Shaffer, who was helping to transport patients from hospitals in Gallup, found workers there wearing bandanas instead of surgical masks and wrapping themselves in plastic bags because they lacked sufficient PPE to safely work around COVID patients. Shaffer’s plea for help in finding PPE found its way to Salas, who was ready with a technical solution.
It helped that Shaffer’s father, Craig Kief, is director of the COSMIAC research center run by the UNM School of Engineering. And the FDA had already issued an exemption permitting the production of 3D masks without the usual vetting process.
“I turned the COSMIAC warehouse into a large 3D printing facility,” Salas says. Since then, printers have been clattering away around the clock at the warehouse, but Salas also has several printers set up in her home, now filled with the odor of melted thermoplastic polyurethane – the raw material from which the masks are made.
The masks are made in four color-coded sizes. Each device can print multiple masks at a time, an automated process that takes 12 to 14 hours. Afterwards, the volunteers sand each mask down to remove excess filament and package it for shipping.
The soft plastic mask hugs the face, and a detachable cartridge holds commercially available air conditioning filters capable of blocking the passage of the novel coronavirus. Because the masks can be wiped down with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide – or sterilized with ultraviolet light – they are reusable, Salas says.
Salas estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 of the masks have been distributed. She has made frequent trips to Gallup hospitals and eastern Navajo chapters to assess the need for PPE. “We bring along donations of food, water and diapers – you name it – anything someone might need a disaster relief situation.”
Early on, though, Salas had to jump through some administrative hoops to gain authorization to distribute the masks.
“I ended up making friends with the acting head of Homeland Security and said, ‘Let me give you a tour, this is what we're making,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You know what? I’m going to essentially deputize you as a person who’s authorized to distribute this on behalf of the state.’ It opened up all these doors."