Heroes can hide in the most unlikely places, springing into action when the time and circumstances are right.
As hospitals and medical facilities around the country report critical shortages of the protective equipment they need to keep their workers and patients safe, some unexpected heroes have emerged – local computer scientists, programmers and technology educators who are coming up with solutions to help fill the void.
Within the past two weeks, a large and diverse statewide network of volunteers has begun working intensively to confront the coronavirus challenge that looms in Wyoming.
The goal of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition is to coordinate high-impact technological efforts to assist the state in confronting its looming COVID-19 crisis, according to a news release.
“Originally, I think there were a bunch of techy people,” said Buffalo High School technology instructor Krista Sweckard. “At that point there were 40 of us. Then it just started growing, I think there’s 187 people. It’s huge now.”
Sweckard was originally involved with the group to help coordinate a local medical supply drive, but then she saw a post from the Johnson County Healthcare Center looking for “handy” people to fashion face shields – essentially plastic, transparent masks that fully cover a wearer’s face. The shields are used with N95 and surgical masks.
Rather than build face shields, Sweckard knew people in the Technology Coalition were using 3D printers to print the shields and the district has such printers.
“Here’s how fast this went,” Sweckard said.
On Thursday evening, she called Snyder and Cameron Kukuchka, the Johnson County School District’s director of technology and innovation, to see if they could use the district’s 3D printers to attempt to print the face shields. After securing permission from the school principals and Superintendent Jim Wagner, by 8:30 that night, Snyder and Sweckard were printing the first mask.
A 3D printer is kind of like a hot glue gun, according to Sweckard. A pattern file is imported into the printer, telling the printer the specifications for what is to be printed. Then a plastic filament is fed through a hot extruder – similar to a hot glue gun – and that plastic is laid down on the bed of the printer.
“The next morning they were done, and we started trying to figure out how to put them together,” Sweckard said, adding that the duo had to improvise a bit, “tweaking” the pattern to secure the face shield to the headband. “We’re not engineers; it’s been a process of trial and error. Mostly error.”
Settling on a design was easy. Finding more plastic material to use in printing was more challenging. The recommended half-millimeter thick plastic is hard to find, and the shipping price is exorbitant.
“Then I read that the plastic used to create overhead transparencies could be used,” Sweckard said.
Teachers haven’t used the overhead transparencies in years, but the district still had a cache of them lying around.
“We were like, ‘Hey, this actually works,’” she said.
Local businessman Michael Markovsky was an early joiner of the Technology Coalition. With two 3D printers in his office, Markovsky knew that he had the capability to print masks or face shields, so when the request came in from Buffalo Urgent Care, he was ready.
“When they asked, I said, ‘I have a way to handle that.’ They were ecstatic when I brought the pieces in the next day,” he said. “The purpose of the plastic printed face mask is not to be a replacement but to extend the materials that are already available in the hospital.”
Markovsky said that a dentist in Billings, Montana, designed the mask, which allows for a replaceable filter to be inserted, and the technology coalition along with Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, coordinated on approved materials and design standards.
“This all happened as a grassroots effort in a way I have never seen any single organization run,” he said.
On Sunday night, Sweckard and Snyder delivered nine face shields to the Johnson County Healthcare Center.
“We honestly didn’t think it would work, and we weren’t sure it was going to be useful,” Sweckard said, but hospital staff were excited and asked for 50 more. “When they were all really excited about it, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool how it could work.’”
Sweckard said that it takes 10 hours to print eight masks, and that she and Snyder have been printing through the night to finish the first 50, hopefully by the end of the week.
Markovsky has delivered three of the masks so far, with more to come.
“There’s a lot happening,” Markovsky said. “There are a lot of people involved in many places in the state. I’m just a part of this whole picture.”
Editor’s note: The Johnson County Hospital is accepting donations of N95 masks, surgical masks and medical gloves that are in their original packaging. Members of the hospital auxiliary are sewing reusable gowns.