A joint effort among the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, the Greenbrier County Board of Education and the Greenbrier County Health Department has resulted in the local production of 3-D printed face masks for possible use by medical professionals and others during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the FDA says such plastic masks are “unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration protection as FDA-cleared surgical masks and N95 respirators,” they can be used to provide a “physical barrier to the environment.”

The masks are seen by the local team working to produce as many as 80 per day on around 30 printers as the final line of defense in personal protective equipment (PPE). And while they’re working day and night to produce the masks, they hope the fruits of their labor won’t need to be pressed into use any time soon.

“This is plan C,” said Greenbrier East High School engineering instructor Kevin Warfield. “These masks are a last resort. They’ll only be used when we run out of all of the other masks.”

Ideally, he said, a plastic mask would be worn with a surgical mask over it.

But with worldwide shortages of PPE — a category that also includes surgical gowns, gloves, face shields and goggles — the small group of 3-D printer experts in Greenbrier County is crafting a hedge against an unthinkable future.

Shortly after Warfield received a call from Greenbrier County Assistant Superintendent of Schools Nancy Hanna last Saturday to alert him to the prospect of printable masks, he began printing out a prototype at home.

“Saturday evening, we rallied the troops,” Warfield said, describing a conference call that involved his fellow 3-D printer wizards, Angie Leef, who teaches chemistry and engineering at Greenbrier West High School, and Lisa Dolan, who teaches pre-engineering at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, as well as several other people involved in the project.

Printers were sourced largely from the county’s elementary schools to be combined with other 3-D printers already in place at the three teachers’ schools and homes.

Warfield works with the largest bank of printers at Greenbrier East, while Leef operates nine printers and a laser engraver (used to cut filters for the masks) at Greenbrier West. Dolan utilizes seven 3-D printers that were relocated to her home for the project, while also overseeing her three young sons.

According to a Facebook post from state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, who lives in Ronceverte and is a member of the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force, others involved in the mask-making effort include Dr. Bridgett Morrison of the Greenbrier County Health Department; Aaron Vaughan of Greenbrier Valley Medical Center; Anita Stewart of the Fayette County Health Department, who found an open source blueprint for the masks; Dr. Drema Mace and Dr. Jim Nemitz of WVSOM, who secured funding and supplies for the project; and Lisa Carter of New River Community and Technical College, who is working on fitting the masks.

Once the masks are printed — a process that takes between 2.5 and 3 hours for each one — they are transferred to the Clingman Center for Community Engagement in Lewisburg to be assembled, cleaned and packaged by WVSOM Center for Rural and Community Health staffers.

From there, the completed masks will be distributed, as needed, to Greenbrier County EMTs, EMS units, clinics and medical centers.

Each of the mask engineers works alone on the project, but with plenty of remote interaction with each other and with others around the country who are tackling similar projects.

“We’ve all kind of gotten in our lane and keep pushing the buttons on the machines,” Warfield said.

It’s not quite that simple, of course.

Leef noted that even though the printers are automated machines, they can overheat or otherwise break down and require maintenance to keep operating. All of the engineers maintain their own equipment.

Dolan said Friday that she had just gotten parts in the mail for a couple of her printers that morning and finally had all seven of the machines up and running at the same time.

She said she got involved with the project because it is a way to give back to the community. That’s particularly important for Dolan, as several member of her family work in the medical field.

“It’s a way to give back to them, too,” she said.

Leef voiced a similar motive.

“I’m not a doctor, but I can do this and help someone,” she said.

Warfield noted, “This is a total team effort. We’re all trying to mass produce these masks as fast as we can.”

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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