501st mission partner innovates against COVID-19 spread

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jennifer Zima
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

With COVID-19 creating difficulties and instability in global supply chains, healthcare workers around the globe are challenged to keep up with increasing demands for personal protective equipment.

James Anderson is a mission partner to the 501st Combat Support Wing, where he works as a geospatial intelligence analyst at RAF Molesworth’s U.S. Africa Command Directorate for Intelligence. In the face of this need, he has voluntarily created and donated over 1,400 protective face shields for medical personnel in the local community to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was probably three weeks ago, I had two 3-D printers that I used to print nerd stuff,” said Anderson. “I read an article on the British Broadcasting Corporation that the National Health Service was out of PPE; they had no protective gear.”

Anderson reached out to his local community’s online messaging board in Oundle, England, to ask if there was a need for 3-D printed face shields or any other protective equipment. He soon received a response from the head of Health and Safety for Peterborough City Hospital, who showed great interest in Anderson’s idea. After she saw several different models and selected a durable prototype, Anderson was asked if he could acquire more printers to maximize his efforts. Shortly after, he started a fundraising page requesting £1600 in order to buy five additional printers and supplies.

“That day when I put up the (page), I spent 18-20 hours on my laptop answering messages, telling people how many I can provide, taking orders, telling people how they can help and sending out the file,” said Anderson.

Within three hours funds reached its goal, but donations kept arriving. This turned out for the best, because Anderson had underestimated the cost of materials with the current rate of production. Rather than producing fast but flimsy shields that would only last several hours, he created durable ones that could be easily cleaned and comfortably worn by medical staff. These shields take two-and-a-half hours to create, rather than 25 minutes for the flimsier design. He eventually acquired a total of ten 3-D printers, producing 60-70 face shields every day.

“They normally have single-use masks that they’re now cleaning and reusing over and over, which is not safe and it’s not ideal,” said Anderson. “To have a face shield over that mask can make it so that they can actually reuse them. I’m not a medical professional, but from what I understand, wearing the shields over an existing mask increases their protection a lot, especially when these are pretty easily cleanable with (items) they already have in the hospital.”

Orders have been arriving from the across the country: hospitals, clinics, care homes, traveling district nurses, and military bases, including RAF Alconbury.

“The face shields are amazing,” said Capt. Jennifer Andrews, 423rd Medical Squadron Family Health Clinic element chief, clinical nurse and infection preventionist. “They are very comfortable and sturdy—ideal to withhold disinfecting and reusing them for my team, as we are having to in these times. The face shields we previously were using were disposable one-time use and it showed…the glue holding the foam and strap on the shield would start falling off at the most inconvenient time which could put my staff at risk if we continued to try to re-use them. As our squadron’s Infection Preventionist these face shields made for our team have really helped conserve protective equipment supplies as well as better protect them.”

Anderson has been working together with the help of his family, his local community, his AFRICOM community, and other 3-D printer enthusiasts across the country. After the printing process takes place, his wife Lauren sands the plastic to make it comfortable to wear. From his yard, his neighbors pick up boxes of elastic bands to use as mask ties. Oundle School loaned him a heavy-duty 3-D printer and a paper cutter. His supervisors approved a program called Civic Responsibility Leave to allow him to currently focus on this need in the community. A fellow 3-D enthusiast in Peterborough prints shield parts and drops off a whole bag two times a week. All of these pieces are required for Anderson to assemble a complete shield.

“My plan is to do this for at least three more weeks,” said Anderson. “In my mind, at some point, the commercial availability of PPE has to catch up. I have enough supplies, the plastic that I print, the shield material (which actually comes from transparent binding covers), and the elastic strap. I have enough of all that for three more weeks of printing. Of course there are plenty of other people who are saying this is going to go on for months. If it does, I can keep printing.”

For people who want to help, Anderson says anything that they can do to support their local community is definitely valued. He doesn’t suggest investing in a 3-D printer specifically for this cause, since there is often a lot of maintenance and tinkering involved. Rather, he echoes the public health community in encouraging others to trust medical advice and stay informed from official sources.

“I know everyone is worried and scared in these uncertain times; we are too,” said Andrews. “But we are working hard every day to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Everyone must do their part to keep our community safe. That means staying home and educating yourself (from credible sources) on how to prevent and limit the spread of the infection.”

Anderson’s innovation in seeing a solution to a real problem and willingness to help has made a difference in his community.

“I’m just glad I can help,” said Anderson. “It’s weird in the world right now, and I’m glad I have a unique skill that I am able to assist with the effort.”