SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah Health engineers have designed a new version of a powered air-purifying respirator system that may help at a time the state continues to feel the limits of personal protection equipment (PPE).
The PAPR system is a reusable PPE device that health care workers can use when working with COVID-19 patients. Like older PAPR models, it has two main components. First, the operator will strap a portable fan system around the worker’s waist like a belt. It blows purified air through a tube to a hood and helmet that the health care worker will wear.
"It’s a great element for PPE, for protecting health care providers," said Dr. Bryan McRae, interim co-director for University of Utah Health’s Center for Medical Innovation, during a virtual press conference with reporters Thursday. "(It’s) trying to provide filtration that protects the health care worker from exposure from the coronavirus."
The Center for Medical Innovation was behind the creation of the sleeker system; the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah evaluated it afterward. Officials said the PAPR systems reduce 0.3-micron aerosolized particle concentration 200 to 1,000 times the amount of air outside the hood.
"It’s generally considered a higher level of protection than the common N-95 masks that require Fit Testing, and then the other benefit is that the PAPR can be cleaned and reused. So it helps the health system reduce the need for single-use, disposable PPE items," McRae added.
Dr. Bernhard Fassl, the center’s other interim co-director, explained that trying to find ways to protect health care workers on the COVID-19 frontline inspired the project, especially because health care workers are at higher risk for infection as the disease spreads.
Utah’s COVID-19 numbers continue to be relatively low compared to other parts of the country. As of Thursday, Utah has reported 2,683 cases of the novel coronavirus and 238 hospitalizations related to it since the outbreak began.
"Protection of our workforce — the doctors, the nurses — who take care of the COVID patients has to be a priority to be able to care for the large number of patients who come in," Fassl said. "The N-95 mask only offers a certain level of protection, but constant exposure to aerosolized secretions from COVID patients, particularly in intensive care units or in patients in COVID wards, the PAPR is really your method of choice to protect yourself."
More than 30 3D printing machines around the university’s campus are being used to create pieces for the machines, and the center is receiving outside help from companies like L3Harris Technologies and O.C. Tanner. None of the devices made are being sold; rather, they’re being donated to health care workers, McRae added.
"Several hundred" units were on their way to be utilized by University of Utah Health Thursday, according to Fassl. About 100 devices are to be sent out to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service by Friday. Officials said they hope to release design specifications for the system to other health care workers across the globe and the general public soon.
"We are not developing this device to compete with commercially available devices. We are developing this to fill a gap — there’s a huge need," Fassl said. "Having said that, we still hold ourselves to the same standard as commercially available devices."