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Southern Oregon 'health care MacGyvers' rush to make medical supplies

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In schools, garages and businesses across the Rogue Valley, 3-D printers are churning out face shields as “health care MacGyvers” rush to address the shortage of medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the nickname the behind-the-scenes army of helpers has been given by grateful doctors and nurses who face exposure to the virus that has killed more than 30,000 people around the globe.

The name is a nod to the 1980s television show “MacGyver,” whose title character used gum, shoelaces, paper clips and duct tape to do everything from defusing bombs to rescuing damsels in distress.

Health care workers battling COVID-19 need all the help they can get.

Those in the hardest hit areas are running out of face shields, face masks, ventilators and other equipment they need to keep themselves protected and care for those who’ve fallen sick with the respiratory illness.

Everywhere else, doctors who are bracing for their own local surges are in worldwide competition for supplies.

“It’s been eye-opening how dire the need is for this equipment to protect our health care workers on the front lines of this,” said Derek Roemer, a computer science teacher at St. Mary’s School in Medford. “Anything the community can do is great. If we can keep them healthy, they can keep us healthy.”

With St. Mary’s School shut down like other schools across Oregon, Roemer is using the private school’s collection of 3-D printers to make head bands for face shields. Add on a disposable clear visor, and presto, health care workers have their own locally made face shield.

“Derek from St. Mary’s has been amazing. That guy’s a genius,” said Brian Murphy, director of materials management for Asante, which operates hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.

More than 130 teachers, engineers, doctors, business owners, entrepreneurs and others have joined the Rogue Valley effort to reverse engineer and then make medical equipment. They're also coming up with their own innovative designs to create even better medical equipment than what's been available.

For now, Asante has enough personal protective equipment for immediate needs, Murphy said.

But he’s constantly on the hunt for more to deal with a potential surge of COVID-19 cases in Jackson and Josephine counties.

“Any supply you have on hand is not enough. We have a bulk supply on hand of personal protective equipment,” Murphy said. “The tricky part is we measure supply based on days-on-hand with average usage. This is an unprecedented situation. We can’t measure by days-on-hand based on average usage. What was considered a gross oversupply is now considered inadequate.”

Murphy said the visor of a face shield helps protect the face and face mask of a medical worker. While face masks are fairly common, hospitals don’t normally stock many face shields.

That’s why the support from the “health care MacGyvers” is so critical.

“It’s amazing what the community has done,” Murphy said. “Folks throughout the valley are 3-D printing face shields. They are very creative folks. The best part of all this is that it involves people from every walk of life. Business owners have been amazing — lending whatever resources they have.”

Murphy said most of the people involved don’t want any public recognition for what they’re doing.

Aside from modesty, they have a good reason to remain hidden in the background.

Businesses especially could face legal action for violating patent law and making equipment they aren’t authorized to manufacture, said Brad Converse, spokesman for an underground group that calls itself COVID Skunkworks.

Under normal circumstances, Converse said, he supports patent laws and the legal structure that help engineers and businesses make money off their inventions and hard work.

“But the companies can’t make enough personal protective equipment,” he said, adding that COVID Skunkworks is creating new designs and working directly with doctors in clinical settings to follow all good-samaritan laws.

A few laws need to be changed to implement a few of these devices, Converse said, but he's confident lawmakers will allow their use in this time of need.

Many of the makers who are part of the Rogue Valley movement to make medical gear are coming up with their own prototypes so they don't face any patent law issues. They make new designs, create parts using their 3D printers, then talk to local doctors about whether the design works and how to make any new improvements. Once they've ironed out any wrinkles, they're start cranking out critically important equipment.

St. Mary’s School and Logos Public Charter School have been among the few players willing to go public about their contribution to the effort.

“We love helping out our community!” Logos said in a social media post. “Logos, along with other schools and makerspaces, have answered the call from the county and hospitals to use 3-D printers to make desperately needed medical equipment. We’ve got four 3-D printers going full speed.”

Logos technology teacher Chris Gillig brought all four printers home so he could practice social distancing while churning out face shield parts. He’s using a medically approved design, the school said.

Converse said engineers and doctors are consulting with each other to make sure the locally made medical equipment actually does the job.

In addition to making face shields, locals are working on ventilator parts, methods to sanitize equipment and other innovations, he said.

Gov. Kate Brown, state legislators and members of Congress are recognizing the importance of locally made medical equipment.

They are calling on the federal government to waive patent restrictions and Food and Drug Administration regulations that are stifling local production of established medical equipment and newly designed products.

Big companies like Nike are champing at the bit to dive into medical manufacturing and help battle the pandemic, according to Oregon Health and Science University, which wants to team with businesses.

Globally, some medical manufacturing companies are already making their designs publicly available.

Ireland-headquartered Medtronic announced Monday it has placed design specifications and product manuals for its Puritan Bennett 560 ventilator online at Medtronic.com/openventilator.

The compact, lightweight ventilator can be used on kids and adults, either at home or in clinical settings, Medtronic said.

The company said it’s on track to double its production of ventilators and has shifts of employees working 24 hours a day. But Medtronic said it wants to boost global production of ventilators even further by opening up manufacturing to others.

“Ventilators play a critical role in the management of patients with severe respiratory illness, such as COVID-19, who require assistance because they cannot breathe effectively,” Medtronic said in a press release. “By placing a patient on a ventilator, the patient’s lungs are permitted to rest and recover while the ventilator performs the functions of supplying oxygen and simulating the actions of breathing. Without ventilation support, some patients with severe respiratory disease might not survive.”

Innovators who design any improvements to the ventilators must make those improvements publicly available. They can’t take legal steps to bar others from adopting the improvements, according to Medtronic’s terms.

Converse said the group of engineers, inventors, doctors, businesses and others in the Rogue Valley has already been sharing its design documents to spread knowledge about making medical equipment.

That way, people can make their own supplies, whether they live in Medford, Bermuda, Kenya or Indonesia.

“No one has to wait for a barge from China,” he said.

Converse launched a website at covidskunkworks.com where anyone can see how to consult with their own local hospitals about needed equipment. People around the world can then form teams and get their local makers churning out parts.

“We’re fighting the virus with a virus. Our virus is information,” Converse said.

For general inquiries about the effort, email info@covidskunkworks.com.

To reach the engineering team, email engineering@covidskunkworks.com.

For 3D printing help, email 3dprinting@covidskunkworks.com.

UPDATED: This article has been updated to more fully reflect the original design work of the Rogue Valley group making medical equipment.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneDerek Roemer drills through a package of transparencies to create face shields at St. Mary’s School in Medford.
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