Published June 17, 2020
If you phone Jordan Levine pretty much any time, day or night, you can hear the steady hum of a 3D printer in the background.
The printer produces face shields, about 20 per day. Since mid-March, when medical students were pulled from their clinical rotations at the peak of cases of COVID-19, Levine and three of his classmates in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB have been working on the face shields.
“We used this time as an opportunity to confront the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage,” says Levine. “We saw that the people who were 3D printing PPE were often the most successful, as they were able to adapt to the rapidly changing recommendations, addressing the overflow of new information with a simple, yet precise tweak in design. So we familiarized ourselves with the various design softwares, invested in six 3D printers and began making face shields.”
Levine’s partners are Josh Broden and Mitchell Eyerman, both in Western New York, and Brittany Russo in Long Island. All are starting their final year at the Jacobs School.
It’s not like 3D printing is a required skill in medical school. But long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, an innovative Jacobs School program called UB BLAST was giving Levine critical lessons in the utility of 3D printing.
UB BLAST, launched in 2019, is an intense, one-week startup boot camp, where teams of students develop companies and create medical devices that solve a surgical problem. A small piece of the assignment includes designing and creating a company logo, which they then make using 3D printers.
“UB BLAST taught me that if you identify a need and you have the means to address it, including the right team of people, you have an opportunity to make meaningful change,” Levine says. “There was a huge need for PPE and we had an amazing group of people.
“When I saw all these resources online for 3D printing of PPE, I thought, ‘wait a minute, I’ve done a little 3D printing.’”
The students also had their $1,200 stimulus checks, which they invested in the project. They purchased the printers for $200 apiece, but the more significant expense is the plastic filament used to make the products. So far, Levine estimates they have purchased more than 30 rolls of it.
It took a month to become skilled enough at 3D printing to make the face shields. “There are so many different factors that go into a successful print that we all were learning from scratch,” he says.
Using a design that had been pre-approved by the National Institutes of Health, Levine learned all the design software that went into the printers, as well as critical details, such as fan settings, temperatures and materials.
“It was a huge engineering endeavor,” he says. “Admittedly, we didn’t realize how much engineering would be involved.”
After getting pointers from an engineer he connected with on Facebook, Levine and his team members were ready. After a number of prototypes, they finalized the design. The first face shields were ready to be donated on April 20.
At that point, Western New York’s hospitals had sufficient PPE, so the team began donating to downstate hospitals, where the need was greatest, including New York Presbyterian, Nassau University Medical Center, Stony Brook University Hospital and some Northwell Health hospitals. Downstate donations were made through Russo, who had returned to her Long Island home and whose printer is, like those of her teammates, busily producing face shields.
“We donated 400 to the ICU directors of those hospitals and they were very grateful; they were accepting any pre-approved PPE they could get,” Levine says.
Once the New York City area’s cases tapered off, Levine and his teammates pivoted back to the needs of Western New York, donating where needed to local hospitals and to an organization called SNAPCAP (Safety Net Association of Primary Care Affiliated Providers of WNY).
In total, they have provided about 600 face shields to the group, and hope to continue to do so.
“We like SNAPCAP because they are a community organization and they do a lot of grassroots work, like pop-up testing for COVID-19 in our more vulnerable neighborhoods,” Levine says.
SNAPCAP couldn’t be more grateful. “We love it; it’s a giant help,” says Travis Wood, administrative coordinator at SNAPCAP. “PPE acquisition is very difficult for the landscape we’re in right now.”
SNAPCAP is a collective of 12 member organizations, including Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center; community health centers, such as Community Health Center of Buffalo and Jericho Road Community Health Center; and safety net providers serving the underserved, underinsured or uninsured; immigrants; minorities; and the LGBTQ+ communities.
“It’s sadly true that these populations in our communities have been hit disproportionately by COVID-19, so it’s doubly important at a time like this,” Wood says.
And while it might look like the need for PPE has dropped with the reduction in COVID-19 cases, Wood says the need is still there, making the donations from the UB students a critical ingredient.
“One hundred percent, we are going to need PPE,” he says. “It will be a continuing ask. The goal for any provider would be not only patient health but community health, and to really turn those words into action, PPE will be part of it.”
As the community reopens and the students look forward to their final year of medical school, Levine says the opportunity to develop new skills and make a truly meaningful contribution at a time when it was sorely needed has been life-changing for all of them.
“This project taught us that we are all capable of finding the silver lining and taking life into our own hands,” he says.
Wonderful news! So will all faculty who go back to the classroom get a shield?