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'I think this idea could save hundreds of thousands of lives': UF doctor creates new, effective mask from hospital materials

Dr. Bruce Spiess had been wracking his brain, trying to find an effective alternative to the hard-to-come-by N95 masks used by healthcare workers.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While medical staff across the country and world ask for supplies like masks and ventilators to help coronavirus patients, an anesthesiologist at the University of Florida has created what he said is an effective alternative to the highly-desired N95 mask.

Dr. Bruce Spiess is a professor and Associate Chair of Anesthesiology at UF's College of Medicine. Spiess had been wracking his brain for days, trying to brainstorm a solution to the mask shortage at Shands Hospital.

Last Thursday night, the idea hit him: the wrapping used on sterile equipment.

"It's a massive amount of material that can be re-purposed out to someone else to make the masks," Spiess said.

The wrapping is commonly found in any hospital or facility where surgeries are conducted, Spiess said. After surgical instruments go through a machine to be sanitized, they are wrapped in the blue Halyard H600 two-ply spun polypropylene.

Spiess said UF Health Shands in Gainesville goes through 600 to 1,000 sheets of the wrapping every day, and that they are thrown away after use. His idea involved sewing two sheets into a usable mask.

Credit: WTLV
A completed mask made of two sheets of sterile wrapping sewn together.

"As I looked at it, I thought, you know, we're throwing away all this wonderful material that's right in front of us that we can make masks out of," he said.

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Spiess took his idea and ran with it, working with a team to create a prototype. Soon after, volunteers and staff at Shands began sewing.

"Within three days of my idea, we had prototypes. Within four days of my idea, we probably had 100 volunteers working," he said.

How effective are these masks? 

"So far, it looks pretty darn good," Spiess said.

While these masks have not yet been certified by major government agencies, Spiess said tests run on them both in his department and at the school's physics department have shown them to be as effective as N95, if not better at preventing particles from entering someone's system.

Using the manufacturers' specifications, Spiess calculated that the material is 4 percent more effective at blocking particles than the N95, blocking 99.9 percent of particulates.

With the help of employees at Shands and volunteers in the community, Spiess' team plans to produce 1,000 of the masks Sunday. They have a goal of 5,000 masks by Wednesday, maintaining a rate of anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 per week after.

"We can go on with this for weeks and maybe months if people don't fatigue on it," he said. "There appears to be a lot of the material around."

Instructions from UF's Department of Anesthesiology on how to make the masks can be found by clicking here.

In the past 48 hours, Spiess has been contacted by medical facilities from Europe to Canada to Hong Kong interested in how to make the masks, along with major retailers offering to convert their factories to produce the masks.

RELATED: Jacksonville 3D printing business creating face shields for healthcare employees

While his focus is on getting at least two masks each to every staff member at Shands, along with local first responders, Spiess said this mask has the potential to save lives across the world.

"It's wonderfully fulfilling, not only to see your own idea take off and other people embrace it," he said. "I can't tell you how important it is to me that I trained as a physician to help my fellow mankind." 

Additionally, Dr. Spiess has created a prototype hazmat suit made out of the same material. In the coming days, he hopes the suit can be rolled out to healthcare workers in the same fashion.

Credit: WTLV
Spiess designed a hazmat suit prototype made of the same material.