When Sara Remsen found out that Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was about to run out of masks, the Gloucester resident used her skills in tech design to help. 

Remsen, who sits as the vice president of Vuforia Product Experience at a computer software company, and about 200 others in various fields are volunteering for the non-profit MasksOn. They are making 50,000 reusable masks out of snorkel masks for health care providers who are in need of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I thought this would be a really exciting thing to get involved with right now,” Remsen said. “It kind of puts a lot of things in perspective of what you are doing with your life and the various skills that you have.”

MasksOn is a nonprofit initiative led by Executive Director Sanjay Vakil, PhD, whose goal is to provide 1,000,000 protected clinician days during April. 

“We are mobilizing top talent in medicine, technology and academia to generate immediate, low-cost and high-quality protective gear for health care workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic,” as is written on the MaskOn website. “The team is building durable, reusable, and sanitizable medical protective personal equipment (PPE) via a combination of snorkel masks, medical-grade filters, and 3D printed parts.”

Elazer Edelman wrote an email on behalf of the MIT medical outreach team expressing the medical field’s need for more PPE.

“Local hospitals and medical centers currently have an acute need for PPE, including surgical masks, face shields, N95s, sanitizer, gloves, safety gowns, and transport media,” Edelman wrote. “These hospitals are desperate for any of these supplies.”

The response from the MIT network, Remsen’s alma mater, and beyond was fast and creative. 

The nonprofit evolved over seven days, Remsen explained, a process that would take normal companies decades to do. 

“It is all volunteer, which is really astounding and the amount of time and effort that all of these people have put in outside mostly of their day jobs in order to execute this is unbelievable,” she said. 

MaskOn’s reusable masks

With around 200 people actively involved in creating the masks, the non-profit’s focus is making reusable and reliable PPE. 

“One of the problems with the N95 masks and the other devices that health care providers have is that you can’t sterilize them effectively,” Remsen said, explaining that the masks are often woven material. 

The way that the reusable masks designed at MasksOn work, Remsen detailed, is that volunteers assemble a full-face snorkel mask with a 3D printed adapter that hooks into the port that is normally where you would breath. 

A HME filter, designed to increase the protection against airborne microbes and transfer of viruses, is then placed on top of that. 

“The filter is actually very common in hospitals as they are used for ventilators, respirators, and anesthesia,” she added. “What we did is enable you to connect that filter to this full face mask so that you have filtered air circulation.”

The masks that they are making are considered prototype kits and are not FDA-approved devices because they have not gone through quality assurance testing. 

But that isn’t stopping health care providers from utilizing the work of the 200-plus volunteers. 

“We are seeing that regulations are getting adjusted because clinicians are choosing between no PPE or something that probably works but hasn’t totally been verified,” Remsen said. 

In the first few days of fundraising, volunteers have raised $1.25 million of a $2.7 million goal.

The non-profit is in the process of improving manufacturing to 1,000 masks per day and are getting the funding to build and deliver 50,000 masks at $55 per unit. 

“Because of your support, we are just days away from getting thousands of masks into the hands of clinicians who need them desperately,” Christian Lewis, a fundraiser organizer for the non-profit, posted on its GoFundMe page, https://www.gofundme.com/f/MasksOn. “We’ve been working day and night to make sure that our frontline healthcare workers are protected.”

The volunteers range in experience, coming from  healthcare organizations such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Lahey Clinics, Mass General, NY Presbyterian, and Tufts Medical and academia such as Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Rice, Tufts, UC Berkeley, UCSF, UT Dallas, and Yale. 

A normal day during COVID-19

In addition to now being the vice president of Vuforia Product Experience at PTC and former cofounder of an augmented reality startup, Remsen has taken on the responsibility of MasksOn’s health care provider phasing documentation. She also manages the health care provider section of the non-profit’s website — all from the comfort of her home in Gloucester. 

“It was really cool trying to figure out where my background in product design and product management would be useful,” she said. 

The volunteer work that Remsen does depends on what the crisis of that day is.

“What I spend my time doing is basically balancing where we are with some of the (quality assurance) testing that we are doing on this mask,” she explained. “We do a ton of different tests on these masks to make sure that is safe.”

The tests include making sure that the masks have the right seal and that they don’t fog after heavy breathing. 

Once those results are in, Remsen updates the non-profit’s end-user facing documentation that come with the masks. 

“I also spend a lot of time with health care providers and medical professionals to make sure that the information that I am producing is correct,” she added. 

As health care providers are under pressure and stress while treating patients who are fighting complications from COVID-19, Remsen is focused on making their lives just a little bit easier. 

“They are running around and literally saving people’s lives which is a ridiculously crazy thing to be a part of,” Remsen said. “It is how do I give them exactly what information they need in the most consumable, downloadable way possible.”

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com.

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