For the past five days, Carl Bass and Chris Taggart, along with some of their family members, have been busy making objects they had never much thought about a month ago.
Normally, the men work on a variety of jobs in Bass’s 10,000-square-foot metal shop in West Berkeley: they design, engineer and build prototypes, convert gas engine cars into electric ones, and cut metal on state-of-the-art machines stationed on the workshop floor.
But now their attention has turned to helping the health workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Using their engineering and design skills, the two men have been using Bass’s sophisticated equipment to manufacture plastic face shields for nurses and doctors.
Over the weekend, working on a design put together by Taggart, the men manufactured 500 pieces of personal protective gear. The design involves snapping a long piece of plastic into a baseball cap. Nurses and doctors can wear them over their face masks for added protection. It only takes a few minutes to put the shields together.
The response from health care workers has been tremendous. As the men and Bass’s family labored in shifts on Saturday and Sunday, texts about the PPE hats poured into Bass’s phone.
“Can I get 25 shields?” one person asked. “I just got off the day shift,” another said. “Thanks for those 25 shields. Can I get another 25 for the night shift?” “Thanks so much,” another health worker texted. “These are perfect. I cried when I got mine. Thanks so much for doing this.”
By Sunday, the 500 shields were gone, handed out for free in plastic-covered packs of 25 to people who had heard through word of mouth about the project. Now the men are gearing up to make tens of thousands more.
Bass and Taggart are two of the hundreds of thousands of “makers” helping in the novel coronavirus crisis. The people who have been sewing fabric face masks have gotten a lot of press attention, but there are plenty of others in schools, shops and converted factories using tooling machines and 3-D printers to make PPE.
“There are a huge number of people around the country who make stuff and are trying to figure out how to help out,” said Bass.
The group of makers includes students from the East Bay School for Boys on Durant Avenue, a middle school that emphasizes hands-on learning. Kyle Metzner, the head of the work program, had heard a plea from Dr. Peter Slavin, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, asking for more personal protective gear equipment, and suggesting that people use their 3-D printers to make it.
“I would hope companies across the country … would start making masks later this afternoon,” Slavin told NBC Boston on March 15.
Metzner, who teaches his students how to do metal, wood and digital fabrication, suggested they think about making shields. A seventh-grader “found the model that not only has the best design but also uses the least filament and prints the fastest,” Metzner wrote on the school’s website. It takes 18 minutes to print a face shield and Metzner has been running the school’s printer around the clock, as has the seventh-grader. Together they have made 60 masks and mailed them to doctors and nurses around the Bay Area, he said.
Bass, the former CEO of Autodesk and a longtime woodcarver and metal worker, came to the shield project via his contacts in the engineering world. Part of a Slack group of thousands of engineers, Bass heard that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was looking for help converting a sophisticated ventilator designed for use in space into one that could be quickly positioned for hospital use. Bass and Taggart, who manages the metal shop, started to consider if they could make ventilators but quickly realized they could be more effective if they focused on making personal protection equipment (PPE).
“They all said ventilators are going to become a critical need but right now we have a much bigger need, which is protective equipment,” said Bass.
Shortage of PPE puts health care workers at risk
Nurses and health care workers have been speaking out about the lack of PPE in hospitals, particularly the dearth of N95 masks. State (Cal OSHA) guidelines for use of the N95 masks have been relaxed because of the COVID-19 crisis, and hospitals are now allowing workers to wear the masks more than once — a concept that would have been anathema a few weeks ago.
“Three months ago, we could have been shut down for today’s PPE practices,” a nurse texted Bass.
Kaiser Permanente nurses picketed the Oakland hospital on March 23 asking for better protective equipment. Health care unions are also trumpeting the risk posed by the lack of protective gear. Some hospitals have limited the places health care workers can wear face masks, suggesting, for example, that they not wear them in hallways or between patients. Others have forbidden health care workers from using any PPE not distributed by hospitals.
“I can’t believe how amazing these people are,” said Bass. “Their willingness to go into work even though they are not optimally protected is incredible.”
Some front line workers are even being punished for complaining about the relaxed safety standards and lack of equipment. An emergency room doctor in the state of Washington told Bloomberg News he was fired because he posted his observations about the lack of PPE and later gave an interview to a newspaper. A Chicago nurse was fired after she communicated with her fellow workers that she wanted to wear more protective gear, the news organization reported.
The Alameda Health System issued an internal memo on Monday expanding where staff can wear masks and pledging to provide respiratory masks to workers in the ER, labor and delivery, urgent care and psychiatry emergency services. But the memo also prohibited the use of the kinds of shields Bass’s shop makes. “Masks brought from home must be commercially manufactured,” according to the memo, which Berkeleyside obtained.
This adherence to rigid standards frustrates Bass, although he understands where it is coming from. But it may end up exposing more health workers to the coronavirus, he said.
“I am finding a discrepancy between hospital administrators and distributors and those on the front line,” he said. “I spoke to people in the ERs and they said, ‘we don’t have what we need.’ Further up the food chain, they said its Ok.”
Metzner has also seen this gulf between what doctors and nurses say they need and what hospitals are allowing. At first, he was not sure how to distribute the face shields his student and he made. He called a number of hospitals but they said they could only accept shields manufactured by well-known companies.
“The hardest part was figuring out where to donate them,” he said. “For legal reasons, hospitals aren’t taking donations of homemade items.”
Bass, who served as the head of Autodesk, a maker of professional 3-D design software and consumer applications, for 11 years, believes the disconnect comes because “many of the people further up the food chain are used to making new and perfect decisions over a long period of time.”
But this is wartime triage, so that kind of approach is not working, he said.
Bass and Taggart are circumspect about who is getting their face shields as some of the recipients aren’t authorized to bring in their own PPE.
Metzner finally reached out to a friend who worked at Kaiser. She posted about the shields on Facebook and since then he has been inundated with requests. One health worker asked for 80 shields, he said.
Bass’ shop is gearing up to make as many as 20,000 face shields, he said. They cost about $1.50 to manufacture — $1 for the hat and 50 cents for the other materials. So it cost $750 to make the initial 500 and will cost $30,000 to make the 20,000.
People who have seen what’s going on through social media have been sending in donations, said Bass.
He is also encouraged by the sheer number of people around the U.S. working to help.
“There are all sorts of organizational efforts,” he said. “When you see the grassroots, it’s amazingly encouraging how many people are willing to jump in and do whatever they can.”
The face shields are free to health care workers. Donations are welcome.
Those interested in getting in touch with Bass and Taggart can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The shop has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help cover costs.