Last summer, Kevin Leeser bought a 3D printer. Leeser, a registered nurse and woodworker in Ann Arbor, MI, got the printer “to play around with inventing things,” he said. But this March, when COVID-19 began to take over lives and headlines, he started to think differently. As a nurse, he remembered the poorly-fitting goggles he’d used in the hospital. “The goggles we had for isolation protection are crap, almost like toy sunglasses,” he said. And now, health care workers need more protection than ever.
So Leeser, a Team Rubicon Greyshirt since 2015, put his 3D printer to work to construct face shields—clear plastic guards that protect the front of the face from forehead to chin. (The medical journal JAMA recently published an article suggesting that such face shields offer important protection against the transmission of COVID-19). In the process, he has enlisted dozens of other 3D printing enthusiasts in the Detroit metro area to help with the effort. The 3D printed face shields that they have made since late March have been donated to individuals, health care facilities locally, and to Team Rubicon’s response efforts with the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, AZ.
What started as a handful of shields for friends in need, has become Operation Face Shield, and Leeser and his cohorts are building more than 1,000 masks a day, all from the homes of people with 3D printers, and sending them off to those in need.
“We’re trying to get as many as we got that day and get them out into the field that night,” Leeser said. As of April 27, Operation Face Shield had distributed more than 20,000 face shields around the country. All of the 3D printed face shields are being made and shipped on a volunteer basis; Operation Face Shield takes donations in the form of materials and gift cards.
DESIGN DIFFICULTIES, AND A FELLOW GREYSHIRT TO THE RESCUE
When Leeser, the RN jack-of-all-trades who spent a year in engineering school and has also worked as a sawyer and a filmmaker, first started working the face shields, he ran into trouble. He wanted to print a headband-like frame and use overhead transparencies—the kind that teachers and presenters used before the PowerPoint era—for the face protection. These would be easy to attach, he figured, if the transparency could hook onto the frame using a three-hole punch. “The idea is that the frame itself is multiple use,” he said; the transparency can be replaced each time.
But, Leeser couldn’t make this printer do what he wanted. When he revealed the challenges he was facing on Facebook, Greyshirt Brian Yang, in Texas, responded. Yang had been printing face shields on his own 3D printer after learning that Austin ICUs were low on the protective gear. He sent Leeser a link to a Czech company, PRUSA, with a design for a face shield. Leeser increased the size of the small face shield by 10%, and his girlfriend, also a nurse, tested it out for five days in the hospital. Leeser acknowledged that he might never know if the 3D printed face shields are sure-fire protection and 100% effective, but they at least offer an additional layer between caregivers and those they come into contact with who could be COVID-19 positive.
To get more printers and people for the cause, Leeser sent an email to Ann Arbor public schools, which closed on March 16, to see if the project could use its 3D printers. The next day, the school superintendent announced that Ann Arbor schools were pitching in on the effort, and linked to Leeser’s Facebook page. “It got big fast,” Leeser said. People he had never met began dropping face shields off at an Ann Arbor distillery that was serving as a distribution site for the masks; the project has since added another Ann Arbor drop-off location as well as one in Waterford, north of Detroit.
Leeser and team aren’t protective of their designs: There’s a link to the face shield template on the Operation Face Shield website; the Facebook group is filled with tips and questions from those making the shields at home. People also update the group on supplies they need. When makers in Ann Arbor began running out of filament, new boxes showed up. On the main website, those who need face shields can enter a request. One of the groups that filed a request in mid-April was Team Rubicon—for 5,000 face shields to help its COVID-19 relief efforts.
3D PRINTED FACE SHIELDS GO FROM MICHIGAN GREYSHIRTS TO GREYSHIRT MEDICS AT THE NAVAJO NATION
Leeser was no stranger to Team Rubicon; he first learned about the veteran-led disaster relief organization through his filmmaking work. He has deployed on seven different operations, serving as a photographer, a general responder, and, in 2017, as a paramedic. In fact, it was after learning about Team Rubicon’s original relief effort in Haiti, that he decided to get his emergency medical technician license. “And then one thing led to another,” he said, although he figured he’d never get called for an operation. Then, Michigan had floods, a tornado, and the Flint Water Crisis, and Team Rubicon—and Leeser—responded to them all. He was a team lead on a 2016 operation in Canada, responding to the Fort McMurray wildfire, and has been on operations in Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands as part of the medical team. In working with Operation Face Shield, he said, “I’ve used a lot of the lessons that I’ve learned from the leaders of Team Rubicon. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the experience.”
Leeser and Operation Face Shield have now sent 1,000 frames and 2,000 face shields to Team Rubicon’s COVID-19 response in Kayenta, AZ, part of the Navajo Nation, which has been severely affected by COVID-19. In late April, news outlets reported that the Navajo Nation had the third-highest rate of infection in the country after New York and New Jersey; as of May 11, the Navajo Nation had 3,204 positive COVID-19 cases and 102 confirmed deaths. Team Rubicon now has 15 EMTs, paramedics, and physician assistants providing medical support to the emergency department at the Kayenta Health Center and supporting Navajo Emergency Medical Service ambulances, explained Scott Nargis, the Wisconsin state administrator for Team Rubicon. “Per capita, they’ve been hit harder than other locations,” said Nargis.