As workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic struggle to find adequate medical supplies and protective gear, innovators from around the world have rallied to create new designs from readily available materials. These include 3D-printed face shields and nasal swabs, plus ventilator machines and an open-source oxygen concentrator.
While the response from these well-intentioned innovators is inspiring, there remains some issues around the use these new designs—one in particular being that very few were designed to meet minimum safety standards or vetted at an early enough stage to help these pop-up equipment manufacturers make the necessary adjustments.
One group, called Collaborating to Address Shortages of Medical Supplies (CASMS), has formed to address the issue. Mike Dempsey, Director of the CIMIT Accelerator Program, helped create the group after his own experience of designing a face shield for a hospital. Upon coming up with the design, it became evident that the hospital may not be able to use the face shields without assurance that basic standards were met.
“So that was very frustrating,” say Dempsey. “Because we had this supply of emergency shields and we had a solution, but we can’t get it into the hands of the caregivers.
“But then I realized that it’s [necessary] that the things that do get into the hands of caregivers are safe. You don’t want sub-quality stuff to be used. So that was the genesis of CASMS. We had to figure out a way to have both speed and safety.”
Dempsey was already a member of a consortium for innovative medicine, called CIMIT, which comprises experts at the intersection of medicine, academia, and business. From CIMIT, the CASMS working group was formed. The team looks at existing specifications and testing protocols for the type of medical supply or device at hand—say, a face shield. Existing specifications for a face shield may be very detailed and include features that are not applicable to the COVID-19 crisis, but are related to different tasks, such as welding for example. The CASMS group pares down these specifications to make them applicable to the pandemic.
Adjusting the specifications also helps by eliminating the need for expensive or specialized equipment. The standard test rig for a face shield typically analyzes multiple features of the shield; in contrast, CASMS may suggest a simpler test fixture that only tests the features important to healthcare workers. “It tests the same thing, but in a much simpler way,” Dempsey explains.
A designer works with a 3D printer to make protective face shields for medical workers in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
With many existing designs already out there and CASMS in action, Dempsey is emphasizing the need for people to shift the focus from designing to testing. “I will say that it has been a very positive experience because—since the word has gotten out that we’re doing this—so many people have reached out and said, ‘I want to help,’ When we say things like we really need more testers and not more people making new designs, everyone is willing to step up and do that,” he says.
While the pandemic will remain the focus of this initiative in the immediate future, Dempsey has some ideas on how CASMS can continue in the long-term. He has previously worked in impoverished countries and those with middling economies—exactly the types that tend to have medical supply shortages.
“We are interested in keeping the CASMS website going after we’ve conquered COVID, to help low- and middle-income countries deal with their persistent equipment shortages. They are lacking medical equipment all of the time, and if there can be minimally viable specs, we think that could help with the development of newer, lower cost things, and hence safety of things that are produced,” he says.
Michelle Hampson is a freelance writer who loves science too much to stick to one beat. For IEEE Spectrum, Hampson frequently contributes to Spectrum's Journal Watch coverage, which highlights newsworthy studies published in IEEE journals. She has also covered health research, astronomy, and climate change for other outlets and organizations. To balance a busy freelance life, she visits the beach, hikes, and watches science fiction shows on Netflix.