Until recently, Sabrina Paseman worked at Apple as a mechanical engineer for products such as the MacBook Pro. Now, she and an ex-Apple marketer are trying to tackle a completely different problem: the global shortage of N95 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a new project called Fix the Mask, Paseman and cofounder Megan Duong suggest a simple design for essential workers who can’t access N95 masks, the respirators that are recommended for healthcare workers to avoid infection from the coronavirus. Surgical masks, which are loose fitting, don’t provide as much protection because the virus can easily travel around the edges of the mask. But Paseman and Duong realized that the masks could easily be modified—even with a handful of rubber bands.
“All you need to do is just create a really tight seal on top of the layered ASTM surgical mask, which is readily available at hospitals,” says Duong. (Some health workers have also reported shortages of surgical masks, though to a lesser extent than N95s.) In a video, Paseman demonstrates how three rubber bands can be linked together to form a tight fit with the surgical mask. In another variation, available as an open-source design that they also plan to begin to manufacture, they use a rubber sheet to form a brace that makes a similar seal. The material for ASTM-rated surgical masks—the same basic material as an N95 mask—is proven to filter out most particles as tiny as 0.1 microns, so if it fits as tightly as an N95 mask, it should be able to perform as well. The team has already worked with medical school researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Iowa to validate that the modified masks can fit as tightly as properly fitted N95 masks.
The project began as the virus was spreading in the Bay Area, and Duong’s brother-in-law, an ER doctor, was reporting that his hospital was dangerously low on N95 masks. Her family scrambled to find some, and it grew into a larger volunteer effort. “We were literally calling hardware stores, paint stores, wherever N95 masks were available,” she says. “We tried to either buy it from them or ask them to donate to hospitals. Originally, how this all started was a very intense three-day effort where we were just calling all the potential warehouses everywhere that have manufactured masks. We gathered around 7,000 masks within that three-day effort, but it only helped two hospitals for a day.”
They realized that they needed a different solution—and then discovered that surgical masks could be more effective if the masks fit differently. Surgical masks can scale up production more quickly. N95 masks have a complex molded shape, but surgical masks are essentially a flat rectangle. “They can be produced 300 times more quickly,” Duong says. They use less of the molded-fiber material that has been in short supply during the outbreak. Because N95 masks are the gold standard for protection, surgical masks also haven’t seen the same massive demand.
Some workers, including many dentists, who are at particular risk of infection, are already using the new modification on surgical masks. Now the team is in talks with mask manufacturers about scaling up production of the rubber brace. They hope to reach retail clerks and others who are most at risk—and ultimately everyone. (The design could also be used to help cloth masks fit correctly; one recent study indicates that a combination of certain fabrics can filter as well as an N95 mask, but the fit on DIY masks is typically a challenge.) The team is also working on plans to bring modified surgical masks to other parts of the world. “Our long-term goal here is, how can everyone have a face mask?” Duong says. “And how can we deliver it to low-income nations? We’ve been actively partnering with medical leaders from low-income nations to figure out how to drive adoption.”