In five minutes, Brianna Slatnick can teach hospital staff how to make an air-filtering faceguard akin to the N95 respirators that are widely recommended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Made with simple parts that cost less than $3 combined and are common in hospitals, the version she and colleagues created does not look factory-made, but they say it works.
A viral video of the technique, developed at Boston Children’s Hospital, shows Slatnick, a surgical innovation fellow and general surgery resident, as she fits together an anesthesia mask with a basic filter, attaches elastic straps, and pulls the contraption to her face. The invention has not been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency charged with workplace safety oversight, and Boston Children’s is not using the device near patients yet because it still has standard supplies on hand.
As the global spread of COVID-19 accelerates, this sort of do-it-yourself response to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is becoming increasingly common, with medical researchers, businesses, and citizen-scientists designing their own face masks, respirators, and ventilators.
“The CDC is announcing additional steps Americans can take to defend against the transmission of the virus,” President Donald Trump said at a White House press briefing on April 3, citing recent research on asymptomatic cases. “In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of non-medical, cloth-face covering as an additional, voluntary public health measure.”
But are homemade devices safe? So far, the evidence is scant and mixed, and while a few ideas show promise, there is some concern that stopgap measures could make things worse. A study published April 2 in The Lancet found that the coronavirus could survive on cloth for at least a day and on surgical masks for up to seven days.
“The last thing you want is for healthcare workers to have a false sense of protection and [inadvertently] perform a risky procedure on a patient,” says Christopher Friese, professor of nursing and public health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Here’s what we know about the most widely proposed DIY gear, and how healthcare experts are embracing the trend in a time of dire need.
In a 2013 study, researchers in the U.K. tested a variety of everyday materials as filters for surgical masks, including cotton T-shirts, dishtowels, pillowcases, and vacuum cleaner bags. While the makeshift masks were better than nothing at all, none of the materials worked as well as a commercial surgical mask, which filtered out three times as many particles in a test chamber and blocked twice as many droplets in a cough test. (Respiratory droplets are the primary way diseases like COVID-19 spread.)
However, the homemade versions did prevent some microbes from getting through, suggesting the makeshift masks were better than nothing at all, says study co-author Anna Davies, a research facilitator at the University of Cambridge (U.K,) and a former public health microbiologist.