Kevin Robinson-Avila, Albuquerque Journal | April 27, 2020
San Juan Regional Medical Center is on the forefront of the regional battle against COVID-19, and the local community has rallied to the cause.
Local manufacturers and makers labs in Farmington and southwestern Colorado are building hundreds of custom-designed face shields, gowns, and other personal protective equipment for the medical center, including components for ventilators and other breathing devices.
Together with grassroots donations, including some 1,500 community-sewn masks, hospital staff has remained well-equipped to fight the virus, despite its rapid surge on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas, said Dr. Brad Greenberg, emergency room physician and head of the hospital’s emergency preparedness steering committee.
“We’ve had to be creative in acquiring personal protective equipment,” Greenberg told the Journal. “The supply chain is broken, and we need to make sure we’re getting the right type of equipment to make our staff safe. It’s been a great community effort.”
The hospital itself began closely monitoring the coronavirus and preparing for it in January, well before the pandemic hit the U.S., Greenberg said.
“We’ve scaled up our hospital response structure bit by bit, and we’ve been watching our personal protective equipment closely and making purchases to be ready,” he said. “We’ve followed the virus in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and the Navajo Nation to be ready to support the entire Four Corners region. We’ve pursued a whole-hearted planning effort to change our operational structure and re-invent the care we provide.”
The five-story hospital converted its two top floors, including the fourth-floor intensive care unit, into surge capacity areas for COVID-19 patients. The state and National Guard built an alternate care site on the third floor as well. And the hospital divided its emergency room into respiratory and non-respiratory sides.
To help build out the protective gear inventory, the hospital turned to the local community.
“We’ve solicited donations from the public, and we’ve been working in creative ways with local businesses,” Greenberg said.
That includes a direct partnership with San Juan Community College and two custom-design, engineering, and manufacturing businesses in Farmington – “PESCO” Process Equipment and Service Co. and ABC Canvas Inc.
Those three entities have worked together to design robust, full-face shields and other equipment for the hospital, and for other local medical facilities. New Mexico Tech mechanical engineering student Logan Byrom and his father, PESCO Business Development Manager John Byrom, created 3-D printing designs for the shields using digital manufacturing facilities at PESCO, and at San Juan Community College’s Big Idea makerspace, a 3,000-square-foot center that opened last year.
“There were a lot of design iterations to work through,” Logan said. “We’ve also built the designs for 3-D-printed masks and components for respiratory systems.”
After testing the face shields, the hospital requested scores of them. It also asked the partners to build helmets that hold the face shields in place, which Logan then designed based on a model helmet provided by the hospital.
As of mid-April, the partners had delivered 130 face shields and 50 helmets to the hospital, using both PESCO and San Juan manufacturing capacity. That includes a total of 11 3-D printers plus metal and woodworking equipment, laser cutters and engravers, and metal milling machinery.
ABC Canvas – which makes everything from awnings, marine coverings, and enclosures to teepees, tents, and tarps – designed the vinyl face mask that fits over the front of the shield.
“We deliver the plastic frames to ABC Canvas and they clip on the clear vinyl plastic shield and elastic bands,” John Byrom said. “All the materials have been donated by PESCO, the college, and ABC Canvas.”
Medical Center Materials Manager Dave Turnbull said the face shields arrived just in time. The hospital has sufficient stocks of most equipment, but it was running low on face shields, which protect against airborne particles.
“The staff was ecstatic, because we were at the point of running out,” Turnbull said. “We’ve been blessed that we haven’t run out of anything yet, but that was one item that came very close.”
The new shields are superior to the disposable, one-time-use equipment the hospital normally uses, Turnbull added.
“These are made with more durable materials that last a long time, and the face shield itself is reusable,” he said.
The partners continue to develop more equipment for the hospital, including components for respiratory systems, such as tube adapters. PESCO is also designing a specialized, custom-made box for a new ventilator prototype the hospital is building.
Across the border in southwestern Colorado, two other entities are providing additional assistance. The Durango-based Powerhouse Science Center’s MakerLab has reverse-engineered an oxygen blowing device the hospital uses to provide purified air under a hood, Greenberg said. It’s delivered 51 blowing units to date.
Mancos-based Alpacka Raft, which manufactures river packrafts, formed a partnership with the Powerhouse MakerLab and other local sewers and businesses to design and make thousands of reusable medical gowns and hoods. San Juan medical center delivered 4,000-plus yards of house wrap material in early August, and Alpacka is using its automated cutting machine and a team of industrial sewers for high-volume production to benefit both San Juan and Mercy Regional Hospital in Durango.
The Farmington partners are now making more protective equipment for other medical providers. They’re building face masks based on designs by doctors in Montana that fit over the nose and mouth, and they’re offering face shields to whoever needs them, such as Piñon Family Practice in Farmington.
“We are very appreciative that our local partners could provide what we are unable to find in the open market,” said Piñon physician Dr. Joe Pope in a statement. “These face shields are very sturdy and provide much greater protection from droplet contamination than goggles, which our staff was previously using. In addition, they don’t fog up like goggles, allowing for better visibility.”
A second New Mexico Tech student is joining Logan Byrom to ramp up production of needed equipment, and the Socorro university has joined the partnership by putting them on the payroll as student workers, John Byrom said.
Meanwhile, community donations keep pouring in at San Juan Regional Medical Center, including home-sewn face masks and food.
“It’s a tough time out here,” said Materials Manager Turnbull. “From what we hear from our peers, many locations across the country are struggling to get items. We’ve been lucky that the community here has really stepped up.”