BILLINGS — Hospitals and other medical facilities around the country have been facing a shortage of masks in recent weeks, as the threat of COVID-19 has spread.
Surgeons in Billings who typically would use a new mask for every procedure have been asked to use just one mask a day so that they don’t eventually run out completely.
“We commonly change those masks out between every case for sanitary reasons,” said Dr. Dusty Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic. “Starting about two weeks ago, the supply became limited enough that we have now been only able to use one mask per day.”
It was on Thursday night, driving home from work, that Richardson came up with an idea to extend the life of their already limited supply of masks.
“Suppliers are not able to get us the masks and we have only a limited number on hand so were trying to figure out how can we make those masks go further,” said Richardson.
In a crisis situation, minds have to move quickly and the red tape that typically slows down innovation is removed.
He took his idea to Spencer Zaugg, a local dentist, and his son, Colton. The Zauggs have four 3D printers, and Colton has experience in design. Together, they were able to design a plastic mask that is printed using a 3D printer which allows 6-10 uses out of the common surgical mask.
The mask was created using a template online and a scan of Colton’s face. It can be scaled up or down to fit different people. They take about two hours to print on a 3D printer and cost only a dollar to produce. Because they are made of plastic, the mask can be wiped down and sanitized, so it is able to be used over and over again.
Days after the design was created, HiTech Filters in Billings was able to offer another time-saving solution: Instead of cutting down individual surgical masks, a machine could cut dozens of inserts in a matter of seconds.
“Essentially, we can use hospital-grade filtration material that fits right there inside the mask and can be massed produced,” said Richardson.
The inserts are made of hospital-grade, HEPA filtration material. In just days, they were able to come up with a solution to the problem facing medical professionals around the country.
Now, Richardson hopes they can get as many 3D printers in the area going as possible so that the masks can be distributed to hospital workers in Billings. Once they have masks, if there are people still willing to produce more, they hope to distribute them to those in our surrounding areas.
Billings Public Schools has offered their help with the use of the district's 3D printers.
“We want this to be free to everybody,” said Richardson. “We want to disseminate the information so that people can start making these things.”
“My hope with this is that in communities that are experiencing critical shortages of these materials they can take what materials they have left on hand and use them and extend them and make them last longer,” Richardson said.
The Billings Clinic Foundation is also asking for donations to help cover the costs of production. To help, click here. People can also call (406) 435-MASK for info on how to help. Additional information about the masks being produced can be found here.