COVID-19

Solving the Face Mask Shortage With Reconfigured Snorkeling Gear

For only $20 a unit, two Victoria tech entrepreneurs have set upon an ingenious way to top up dwindling supplies of protective equipment for frontline health workers

By Tristin Hopper
March 31, 2020
COVID-19

Solving the Face Mask Shortage With Reconfigured Snorkeling Gear

For only $20 a unit, two Victoria tech entrepreneurs have set upon an ingenious way to top up dwindling supplies of protective equipment for frontline health workers

By Tristin Hopper
Mar 31, 2020
Philipp Hertel, left, and Ian Mathieson, right, two Victoria tech entrepreneurs working on reconfiguring snorkel masks into critical frontline medical equipment (Submitted).
COVID-19

Solving the Face Mask Shortage With Reconfigured Snorkeling Gear

For only $20 a unit, two Victoria tech entrepreneurs have set upon an ingenious way to top up dwindling supplies of protective equipment for frontline health workers

By Tristin Hopper
March 31, 2020
Solving the Face Mask Shortage With Reconfigured Snorkeling Gear
Philipp Hertel, left, and Ian Mathieson, right, two Victoria tech entrepreneurs working on reconfiguring snorkel masks into critical frontline medical equipment (Submitted).

With a father in healthcare and a brother in firefighting, Victoria tech entrepreneur Ian Mathieson was uniquely cognizant of the critical shortages of personal protective equipment now facing frontline healthcare workers and first responders as a result of COVID-19.

There are now acute shortages of face masks, hand sanitizer and medical gloves across the Western world. In BC, this has already resulted in hospitals rationing supplies, keeping existing stocks under lock and key and, in some cases, devising emergency plans for improvised backups such as shoe covers. Anyone with unopened masks, protective gowns, gloves or hand sanitizer is being asked to donate it for use by BC healthcare workers.

After a weekend of fevered development, Mathieson and co-designer Philipp Hertel believe they are closing in on a possible solution: Snorkelling masks reconfigured to act as medical-grade face masks.

“They’re readily available; nobody’s snorkeling right now,” Mathieson told The Capital.

Typically seen at tropical resorts, snorkelling masks are a one-piece unit that replaces the goggles and stand-alone snorkel that were traditional used for the activity. A large plastic screen envelops the wearer’s face to give them a fuller view of the underwater environment, and a tube sticking out from the top of the mask acts to funnel air into their mouth and nose.

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Mathieson and Hertel's design simply removes the snorkel from the top of the mask and replaces it with a plastic insert that can be fitted with an off-the-shelf HEPA filter.

Currently, most Canadian frontline medical staff are treating COVID-19 cases while wearing an over-the-mouth face mask, ideally an N95 respirator, as well as a plastic face shield to protect against airborne droplets spewed out by coughing or sneezing patients.

A modified snorkel mask combines both pieces of equipment. And, as Mathieson notes, wearing one makes it physically impossible to touch your own face. Unlike N95s, it’s reusable, and HEPA filters are generally more effective at screening out micro-particles.

Detailed plans for the unit have already been posted online at covid19emergencyfacemask.com. The mask is currently under testing at Saanich Peninsula Hospital to ensure it can maintain a tight-enough seal to protect against the intrusion of airborne droplets. Test subjects are also having their oxygen and carbon dioxide levels monitored to ensure they can breathe comfortably.  

The masks only require three components, only one of which needs to be manufactured from scratch (Source).

If all checks out, Mathieson and Hertel have started a non-profit to coordinate the mass manufacture and assembly of the masks. They are currently sourcing out an optimum snorkeling mask from factories in China, and coordinating with manufacturers in either Vancouver or Victoria to produce the unit that holds the HEPA filter and screws into the mask in place of the snorkel.  

As COVID-19 has strained healthcare capacity all over the world, it has unleashed a wave of emergency innovation rarely seen outside of wartime. Engineers with MIT have just published plans on how to manufacture emergency ventilators for $100; a potential boon to hospitals given that ventilator shortages have been the prime cause of triaging care for COVID-19 patients in regions such as New York or Italy where healthcare systems have become overwhelmed.  

Former federal minister of health Jane Philpott, left, sporting the personal protective equipment typical of a doctor treating patients suffering from COVID-19 (Source).

Earlier this month, Oregon-based developers with Hewlett-Packard released plans for a handwashing station that can be built for $10, with the goal of providing sanitation to street communities and others without easy access to plumbed bathrooms.

And just this week, a Brussels hospital began similarly experimenting with reconfigured snorkel masks to alleviate supply shortages of face masks.

To donate to efforts to manufacture the COVID-19 emergency face mask for use in BC health facilities, visit this link.

tristin@capnews.ca