Aussie testing facilities fast track PPE into health care

Monday, 30 November, 2020

Flinders University established a dedicated testing facility for protective gowns, with researchers also devoted to improving face mask safety. The two Flinders R&D projects, supported by Flinders Foundation grants, aimed to make more locally made personal protective (PPE) equipment available to keep healthcare workers safe from coronavirus (COVID-19) and other infections. The Medical Device Research Institute (MDRI) researchers at Flinders at Tonsley tested fabric samples from gown manufacturers for resistance to bacteria, virus and fluids. A trial at Flinders Medical Centre also tested 3D printed face mask seals, moulded to the faces of individual healthcare workers, to reduce the potential for infection caused by ill-fitting masks when treating COVID-19 and for other high-risk procedures. Professor Karen Reynolds, MDRI Director, believes serious disruption of PPE supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic showed establishing the Australian-based gown testing facility was vital. Professor Reynolds said that PPE, including gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns and aprons, are necessary, to protect healthcare workers from being infected.

“During the pandemic, there has been grave concerns for PPE availability as demand for this equipment increased rapidly, and there has also been misuse, hoarding and theft, combined with reduced supply because of transport and export restrictions,” Professor Reynolds said. “I don’t think gowns and masks crossed anyone’s mind before now, they were just gowns and masks — but now everyone is talking about PPE and the ramifications of not having a stable supply.” Previously, gowns were sent overseas for manufacturing and testing standards; however, the Tonsley-based gown testing facility allows for a fast-tracking of the process for Australian-based manufacturers, and makes good quality, safe PPE available to hospitals faster. The $38,000 grant from Flinders Foundation provided equipment and initial staffing to establish the facility, where various gown fabrics were tested for their resistance to blood-borne pathogens. The fabric would also undergo impact penetration and hydrostatic pressure tests for fluids. The facility will also grow pathogens onsite, enabling gowns to be tested against the very viruses and bacteria that cause disease.

“The idea is that manufacturers can bring their gowns here, we can run the tests and they can move forward with production. Meanwhile, hospital services can be confident their staff are properly protected,” Professor Reynolds said. The tests will be performed under contract with manufacturers, for an appropriate fee. The establishment of the gown testing facility followed the development of a South Australian Mask Testing Facility at Tonsley, to test respirator and surgical masks produced by local manufacturer Detmold. “Since the announcement of the mask testing facility, we’ve been inundated by requests to undertake testing for more than 30 companies and healthcare providers from across Australia and New Zealand and we now expect there to be interest in gown testing also,” Professor Reynolds said. Flinders University cardiologist Associate Professor Anand Ganesan and fellow researcher Darius Chapman will use a mobile phone app to scan the 3D geometry and coordinates of an individual’s face to make a seal, which can comfortably sit between a standard N95-grade face mask and the individual’s face. The re-usable, custom-made seal is designed to prevent gaps between the cheek and the nose where viruses, bacteria and fluids can leak through.

Associate Professor Ganesan noted that healthcare workers, particularly in other parts of the world, had developed bruises and pressure sores on their nose and cheeks from the force of continually wearing masks with the straps pulled tightly to protect themselves. “The human face is so variable and there’s different shapes and sizes for everyone so a generic one-size-fits-all mask won’t capture everyone, so we’ve set about trying to limit the leak from these masks,” Associate Professor Ganesan said. The face seals could also have applications in other industries, such as emergency service firefighters or sleep apnoea patients to improve the comfort and efficiency of CPAP machines.

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