Innovation Amidst a Pandemic

April 1, 2021 | Lily Hiser

A glimpse into Duke’s COVID-19 Engineering Response Team

People crowd around desks working on face shields, which are piled up in a row in the corner

Volunteers help assemble face shields produced through the COVID-19 Engineering Response Team. From the months of May to October, approximately 95,000 face shields were manufactured for use throughout the Duke Health System.

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the United States in early March 2020, it brought overwhelming fear that blanketed the country’s health care system. With all of the unknowns surrounding this highly infectious and dangerous disease, health care professionals and their systems were apprehensive not only of treating COVID-19 patients, but also of keeping their personnel safe in the meantime. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) exponentially increased caregivers’ anxiety, leading them to seek creative solutions from their community.

Duke University Health System (DUHS) was not immune to these anxieties. As DUHS braced for the predicted influx of COVID-19 patients, concerns over equipment supplies drove clinicians to turn to colleagues in the Pratt School of Engineering for assistance. As the pandemic continued to ramp up, leaders across Duke University and Duke Health joined together to form the COVID-19 Engineering Response Team. Eager to combat COVID-19, they shared device design expertise and innovative solutions.

Spearheading this campaign from the biomedical engineering department were Eric Richardson, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering; Paul Fearis, senior lecturing fellow in biomedical engineering; and Mark Palmeri, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering. Commenting on the reason for the team’s formation, Palmeri said, “If you’re watching another ship sink in the ocean due to a carpenter ant that could also be eating your ship, you do everything you can to make sure your ship doesn’t go down.”

The back of a surgeon's head with a big plastic machine on itAlso leading the group were Chip Bobbert, the senior engineer and fabrication architect at Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab. Additional support came from Ann Saterbak, director of the Duke Engineering First-Year Experience, who coordinated undergraduate participation; Joe Knight, an adjunct engineering professor with Duke Design Health; Ken Gall, associate dean for entrepreneurship at Duke Engineering; and other members from Duke Engineering and the Innovation Co-Lab.

On the clinical side, Donna Crenshaw, executive that bringing together lots of people, who organically wanted to be part of it, makes a huge difference,” said Palmeri. “Everyone there was willing to put their own personal time and resources into it.”

Most people still remember the shortage of essential items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the early months of the pandemic, but these nationwide shortages expanded to materials and hardware products. Because of this, Bobbert and the team had to get creative with sourcing the materials that would comprise the face shields and the machines that would make them.

A medical caregiver stands next to a dummy on a bed under a plastic tentSome of the clear plastic that covered the face was purchased from a hot-air balloon supplier, and a metal manufacturing plant in Burlington was persuaded to cease operation to help produce various face shield parts, Bobbert explained. To create the bend seen in the plastic face covering, the team used thermoforming. And when no thermoforming machines were available, Bobbert purchased a pizza oven and used it instead.

Before the large-scale manufacturing could begin, Palmeri rigorously tested the design until he was confident that it met the quality expected of a medical device and the overarching standards it was subject to. He set up a testing rig—as described in the ANSI standard that governs face shields—in his own home using items he already had. All of this was done to ensure that users of the face shield could be confident they were protected.

Other completed projects include a surgical hood and an aerosolization sampler clip, both of which are either in clinical use or in the process of being implemented. Richardson and Duke Surgeon Melissa Erickson took the lead on the surgical hood, which repurposed Stryker Flyte Personal Protection Systems to serve as PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators) for surgeons. Several other projects that stemmed from the initial needs-finding exercise, such as COVIAGE, a negative pressure tent designed to isolate infectious COVID-19 patients, continued to develop throughout the fall.

After the initial anxiety around the pandemic, Richardson says that the team has settled into what will be a marathon of device design, and faculty members are optimistic about the future impacts that this team will have for collaboration between the Schools of Medicine and Engineering. While the team is by no means the first of its kind, the strong and vigorous response of both institutions while faced with a seemingly unsurmountable enemy lends further credence to the importance of establishing strong collaborations between the two. The Engineering Response Team is the epitome of Duke’s capabilities—creative innovation, high-quality results and an unrelenting pursuit of bettering the community.

Lily Hiser is a senior studying biomedical engineering.