COVID-19 / Health / Makerspaces / Manufacturing

Philly makers are stepping up to ease the protective equipment shortage for healthcare workers

"We are working to reduce the worst case. By having alternatives for professionals who run out of off-the-shelf equipment, we can enable them to stretch the supply they have."

One of Trans Lualhati's 3D-printed masks. (Photo courtesy of Trans Lualhati)

This editorial article is a part of's Healthcare Technologies Month of our editorial calendar.

As healthcare centers across the city brace for an onslaught of COVID-19 patients, local makers, inventors, designers and businesses have pivoted to producing personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Healthcare workers treating those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases must take extra precautions, and use PPE to avoid catching the virus themselves and spreading it to other patients.

But, as workers in healthcare centers have become increasingly reliant on PPE, people across the world have been buying up the supply to use for themselves when venturing out in public — while governments didn’t act quickly enough to stock up. As a result, Philly hospitals, and others around the country and world, are already falling into a shortage of materials. On March 26, the City of Philadelphia put out a plea for residents to donate PPE like N95 respirators, gowns and goggles.

So, in the last few weeks, Philadelphians have stepped up to create and manufacture masks, shields and other objects that can elongate the use of PPE.

Marion Leary, the director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, told that PPE is essential for healthcare workers who are treating patients.

Leary and other sources talked to for this story said that homemade masks, like ones folks can sew at home, are great for prolonging medical grade masks by using them as covers or for people who want to wear one when out in public.

But reserving medical-grade masks, like the N95 respirator masks, which filter out very small particles like viruses, are crucial, she said.

“This reduces the risk of contraction for our frontline providers who are using these masks while treating patients,” she said. “Without that protection, the risk of infection increases.”

Leary has been collecting PPE from people in the area to bring to healthcare centers that are running low.

“Our frontline providers are putting their health and lives at risk to take care of ours, we need to get them the PPE equipment they need that is most protective to them and to others in the hospital,” she said.


In the last few weeks, organizations, makers and individuals who want to help create a supply of PPE have gathered in an open community called CoverAid PHL.

Some of those involved are in fashion, manufacturing, the maker community or in healthcare, but all are working together to “coordinate supply chains and innovations to support personal protective equipment needs of professional health care in the Philadelphia region during the Coronavirus pandemic,” the org’s mission says.

The organization’s volunteers are communicating via Slack channel to identify where existing masks may be and connect them with healthcare workers and also work on a supply chain with manufacturers who can make more PPE.

Evan Malone, president of makerspace NextFab, said organizer Kendra Brill reached out for some technical advice nearly two weeks ago, which led to NextFab getting involved in the project.

The understanding is that the need is enormous, and supply chain may be able to respond, but there’s some delay.

The project’s efforts are to help bridge the gap in supplies while traditional manufacturers of PPE can catch up. One of its core values is that it remains open source, meaning companies or individuals involved are sharing information that could be of help to the community.

“The understanding is that the need is enormous, and supply chain may be able to respond, but there’s some delay,” Malone said.

Right now, CoverAid PHL is focusing efforts on the Fabric Mask V1, a washable, adult-sized mask that’s function is to reduce the spread of contagion within hospital settings in accordance with the following CDC guidelines, Malone said. If these masks can be used by lower-risk patients, more medical-grade PPE can be reserved for healthcare workers dealing directly with COVID-19 patients.

Right now, the org expects that these masks will be used in settings like hospital admissions and waiting rooms or for hospital workers who are in more administrative work — and CoverAid PHL has received interest in producing more than 20,000 units of the mask from various healthcare institutions, Malone said. The organization is working with manufacturers, but that could take about two weeks to jump-start, so volunteers are beginning production of the masks now.

Others across the city are working on producing more durable types of PPE, including Trans “R.J.” Lualhati, a materials engineer with Johnson & Johnson. The 2016 La Salle University grad was looking for ways to help make protective equipment and found an open source group on Facebook for medical supplies.

“A lightbulb just went off,” Lualhati said.

He’d just visited his alma mater weeks before and had seen a 3D printing lab that he knew wasn’t being used since the school shuttered the campus. So, he reached out to his mentor, Bill Weaver, an associate professor of integrated science, business and technology, who arranged for Lualhati to bring four printers back to his Brewerytown apartment.

These are just a few of the many efforts taking place in Philly and around the country.

Since last week, Lualhati has been printing face shields that can be worn over other PPE, then get washed and reused.

“The goal is to use it for as long as possible, and elongate the protective gear’s use,” Lualhati said.

He’s printing about 65 headbands a day, which are attached to sheets of transparency film that cover the wearer’s face. La Salle gave him the material for the plastic headbands, but he’s paying out of pocket for the film and other supplies.

He’s been in contact with hospitals across the city and is waiting for approval to begin distributing them, but Lualhati has already made his first drop — to Paul’s Run Retirement Community. The engineer credited La Salle and the Integrated Science, Business, and Technology community there for supporting his education and giving him the foundation to bring this idea and others to life.

Countless other efforts by companies and individuals to create more PPE or collect it for healthcare workers have sprung up. These are just a few of the many efforts taking place in Philly and around the country. Locally, we’ve seen examples like a group from Penn that started a GoFundMe to support production of 3D-printed masks, or companies such as Disk Makers in Pennsauken, New Jersey that has pivoted to making face shields.

For many who are joining efforts to create PPE or collect donations for area hospitals, it’s about attempting to lower the catastrophic strain the virus will have on our healthcare system.

“We are working to reduce the worst case,” Malone said of CoverAid PHL’s efforts. “By having alternatives for professionals who run out of off-the-shelf equipment, we can enable them to stretch the supply they have.”

Companies: La Salle University / NextFab
Series: Healthcare Technologies Month 2020 / Coronavirus

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