COVID-19 Creates Problems, Research Supplies Solutions

Applied research, a discipline which uses inquiry-aided design, has helped Jefferson faculty and students come up with solutions to surprising issues created by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has forced all of us to become creative problem solvers and change our lives in small and large ways. As a hospital on the front lines of the pandemic in Philadelphia, Jefferson staff has had to think on their feet, analyzing problems and developing solutions for a variety of issues. They’ve tackled shortages in personal protective equipment and ventilators, gaps in childcare coverage for physicians on the front lines and problematic surgical gowns.

“Applied science uses scientific inquiry to rigorously analyze problems and then develop and test answers,” says Ron Kander, PhD, associate provost of applied science at Jefferson. “Our researchers, students and designers have been working hard to understand how COVID-19 is changing our work and our lives, and have come up with innovative solutions to overcome these obstacles.”

Here we look at a handful of the innovations Jefferson students and staff have developed to ease an issue the pandemic has created.

Rethinking Surgical-Gown Design

There are a various options when it comes to surgical gowns. One, a plastic gown that ties in the back is great for repelling fluids, and the sleeves have a thumb hole that allows for more dexterity. But, the opening at the back leaves workers feeling exposed. Another option is a nylon gown with sewn cuffs and full front-back coverage, which is more expensive to produce and not as water repellant. With a box of currently used gowns dropped off on her front porch, Anne Hand, associate professor of Fashion Design, got to work developing a new prototype that combined the best qualities of each existing version. She developed a model that could be made with a single sewing machine, simplifying production, yet providing better full-body coverage and functionality.

A Smart Ventilator Splitter

As hospitals throughout the country began to experience a surge in the numbers of critically ill COVID-19 patients, it became clear that respirators – a critical component of managing severe cases – were becoming in short supply. Some sources estimated that there would be a shortfall of 800,000 ventilators. The machines provide mechanical ventilation by moving breathable (filtered) air into and out of the lungs, to deliver breaths to a patient who is physically unable to breathe or breathing insufficiently – one machine per patient. Bioengineer Alessandro Napoli and neurologist/neuroscientist Mijail Serruya, developed a computer-controlled 3-way ventilator splitter with a digital control panel to monitor the airflow parameters of each patient’s lungs. Each of the lines in and out of the machines would be fitted with a filter for each patient’s airflow. The researchers build a touch-screen display to help monitor and control the splitter, and are currently testing their prototype.

JeffSitters – Med Students Providing Childcare for Healthcare Professionals  on the Front Lines.

With schools and daycares closing, many healthcare professionals have had the added stress of finding childcare while keeping their responsibilities to care for sick patients in the hospital. A group of students led by Alexandra Leto, started a collaborative of student volunteers from multiple areas throughout Jefferson, who could provide childcare to frontline healthcare professionals. They investigated best practices across the country including handwashing, mask wearing, and open communication regarding exposures and risks. They also collaborated with other organizations starting similar initiatives to offer care early in the pandemic. This fall, the group is looking to re-organize with new students and begin offering sessions again.

Salvaging a Full-Body Infection-Containment Suit (PAPR) with 3D Printed Fix

When a single piece of plastic kept breaking, rendering useless the expensive full-body hazard suits (called PAPR) used to treat COVID-19 patients, staff and students started tinkering. One inch squared, the plastic fasteners kept the suite attached to the battery pack that powered the continual flow of filtered air inside the suite. The replacement parts were nearly impossible to obtain at the speed needed. So a large team of Jefferson healthcare workers came up with their own fix — printing 3D replacement parts and filing them down to fit. The fix worked. The PAPR suits were able to go back into circulation, providing protection for healthcare workers and patients alike. (You can read the full story about their project here.)

COVID-19-Patient Masks for Use During Oral Procedures

Oral, dental, and nasal surgeries can present risks to surgeons performing the procedure during the pandemic. A surgical team at Jefferson led by Dr. James Evans,  developed a mask to be worn by patients during the procedures that would remove the patient’s exhaled air before it could enter the room. The negative airway pressure respirator, or NAPR, was made by attaching a suction tube with a HEPA filter to a mask that fits snugly around a patient’s face, while allowing healthcare workers to pass instruments through a second, larger opening in the mask. The negative pressure created by the suction allowed exhaled gasses and particles to be captured even while physicians worked through the mask opening. The surgeons continue to develop and test the mask. The surgeons continue to develop means to protect healthcare workers from COVID.

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Science and Technology