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UF Health, University of Florida innovating masks, ventilators in fight against coronavirus

The Gator Nation is doing its part to fight the current pandemic.

Central Florida coronavirus response Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Thursday brought a couple of dire updates in the significant torrent of bad news about the growing pandemic of coronavirus cases caused by the virus variously called SARS-2-CoV and COVID-19, especially in Florida: The number of known cases of coronavirus leapt by more than 2,000 since Wednesday, according to figures released by the state’s Department of Health, with both Broward and Dade counties now over 500 cases, and Governor Ron DeSantis is facing mounting criticism for a lack of a state-wide shelter-in-place order like those many other states with Florida’s prevalence of coronavirus have instituted.

But the University of Florida’s efforts to fight coronavirus have been fruitful.

Thursday brought news of an innovation from the school that might be a breakthrough when it comes to the production of masks desperately needed by the medical community. As Leah Buletti writes for The Gainesville Sun, UF Health doctors have begun making masks out of polypropylene, a material typically used in medical settings to wrap surgical instrument trays and then discarded.

These masks, per calculations by UF anethesiology professor Bruce Spiess, could be even more effective than the N95 masks currently being used by hospitals around the world in the millions — and though they are not currently certified to block particulates like the N95 masks, it is their capacity to be made in bulk quantities that makes this innovation so potentially seismic.

According to Spiess, a single sheet of the material could yield the makings of 10 masks — and UF Health hospitals alone could be going through 500 to 1,000 sheets per day. Tapping into community efforts, UF Health will soon be able to deliver kits to in-home sewers, who will then return the masks to facilities to be sterilized and prepped before their use.

If Spiess and UF Health have hit on an effective stopgap solution while N95 masks are being mass produced and slowly distributed, it could be a godsend for hospitals with low or no supplies of the current standard, as shortages have led to guidance that the N95 masks be reused, something that runs contrary to Food and Drug Administration guidance and the Centers for Disease Control suggests avoiding if possible.

And if the recycled material is as plentiful in other hospitals as Spiess says it is — “Every hospital uses this same material,” he says — then it’s possible that this is an ingenious and sustainable way to help slow the spread of coronavirus at a time health care professionals need it most.

But that’s not the limit of UF’s ingenuity when it comes to coronavirus. On Wednesday, UF Health published an article on researchers leading an effort to build low-cost and open-source ventilators. Using materials that may be widely available at home improvement stores like The Home Depot or Lowe’s, including PVC pipe and lawn-sprinkler valves, Dr. Samsun Lampotang led a team of colleagues and open-source builders from across the globe in designing a ventilator that could cost no more than $250 and be publicly available in just a few days.

And its design could well be free to the world to use:

Lampotang, an inventor with 43 patents belonging to UF, will not try to patent the ventilator, he said. Rather, with UF’s approval, he will provide it “open source” for engineers and hobbyists worldwide as the number of critically ill coronavirus victims continues to climb. His team is working on adding safety features to meet regulatory guidelines and then they will run engineering tests to determine safety, accuracy and endurance of the machine, which can be built for as little as $125 to $250.

While this effort is unlikely to be of significant aid to coronavirus patients — Lampotang told the writer of the article that his wish is that the not be necessary to deploy it during the current pandemic — unless production can be scaled up dramatically, it is also a potential cheap and easy solution to future ventilator shortages in future pandemics, an especially tantalizing prospect for use in underdeveloped countries.

Innovation isn’t all that Gators are bringing to bear in the effort to fight coronavirus, either. UF health science students are helping with coronavirus testing in The Villages — as pictured in the lead image of this post — and work by a UF Health researcher earlier this March showed promising signs that certain compounds could block coronavirus from infecting cells.

The University of Florida and UF Health are far from the only bodies working tirelessly to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

But if you’re a Gator, it’s certainly heartening and then some to see just how much the Gator Nation is contributing to the world in a time of great need.