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COVID-19 UPDATE: med students lead the charge to protect health care workers

As shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to generate headlines around the world, a team of med students from Queen’s has started an initiative to create more PPE. And now, what began as a local program, has grown to become a network of collaborators from coast to coast.

“Med students have been taken off clinical duties, so we can’t help directly,” says Cesia Quintero, a fourth-year med student at Queen’s. “Still, we all want to find ways to contribute.” Quintero – along with fellow students Megan Singh, and Matthew Snow – saw an article in the news about shields being 3D-printed in London, Ontario, and they wondered if it would be possible to do something similar in Kingston to help local health care workers.

The team was able to access open-source mask designs and connected with an ICU physician who was interested in trying them out, as well as a Simulation Lab technician at Queen’s School of Medicine with extensive 3D printing experience. From there, they recruited a team of Engineering undergrads to make prototypes to test for droplet protection. Infection Control and Occupational Health at Kingston General Hospital looked at the designs, and they “immediately requested 500 masks, plus 100 shields, with additional orders of 300 masks and 100 shields per week going forward.” Since then, they have been inundated with requests from Clinics and Hospitals in the Kingston Region. Four clinics in the Kingston area have already begun using the team’s face shields, and both face shields and face masks are being used at various Simulation Labs. The PPE is meant to be used only in a situation in which no Health Canada-approved PPE is available. “We’ve been surprised by the real gap that needs to be filled.” As of April 7th, they have had requests for 2500 items, 1900 of which have been printed and are in various stages of assembly and delivery.

In order to meet that need, the team needed to reach beyond the Queen’s campus—and beyond the city of Kingston. “We put out a call to anyone with a 3D printer to help out and received responses from all over the place.” In addition to private citizens, places like the Kingston Library, St. Lawrence College, and many local businesses have pitched in and started building more and more PPE for the team to distribute. “Currently we have 100 printers and a team of 130 volunteers that assist with delivery, assembly, pick up—and that’s in addition to our core team.”

Intensivist Dr. Hailey Hobbs serves as the team’s clinical lead, and SIM Lab Technician Jeremy Babcock has become the project’s Technical Lead. The team has now grown to include Daisy Liu, Jessica Gahtan, Hannah Dies, Liane Bailey, Eva Bruketa, Kim Vella and Leah Allen.

As the project grows exponentially in scope, designs have evolved, processes have improved – it now only takes them 1.5-2 hours to print a mask – and a collaboration with Kingston General Hospital is underway to create isolation hoods for patients who are suspected of having COVID-19 but can’t wear masks. The hoods are being tested in the ICU and may soon go into mass production.

While similar 3D-printing initiatives have sprung up across the world in the past few weeks, the Queen’s team was fortunate to have the idea early, right after the whole shutdown in Canada, and got a head start in terms of being organized and building an agile team that was able to pull it off quickly and efficiently. And now they’ve become a model for other student-run programs; schools are reaching out to them for guidance, from British Columbia to Stanford, California.

For this team of med students, it’s an unexpected step away from medicine and school into the world of big businesses and manufacturing—but one that has helped them to contribute in a meaningful way in the battle against the global pandemic. “The cool thing about working with other med students is that you know everyone fairly well, you know their talents, and you know that everyone is insanely driven and has an insane work ethic—they want to get out there and help, and they’ll do it however they can.” There are a lot of long days, and no weekends, but for Quintero and her team, it’s more than worth it. “It’s reassuring to know that these amazing people are going to be my colleagues and that I get to work with them in the future.”

You can support this initiative to keep health care workers safe by donating directly to their GoFundMe page. Or if you think you can provide help in any other way you can contact the team directly.