An ex-Apple engineer is helping combat the N95 mask shortage with a simple solution that anyone can make at home with rubber bands
Appleengineer Sabrina Paseman cofounded Fix The Mask, an organization that offers designs for a brace to make surgical masks more effective as hospitals grapple with N95 mask shortages.
- One version of the brace can be made at home by linking three rubber bands together, while another can be made from a rubber sheet.
- Fix The Mask has already made two iterations of its brace, and it's working on a third that's more comfortable and durable.
- Paseman spent more than five years working as a mechanical engineer at Apple in its Mac division before cofounding Fix The Mask.
When the hospital where Sabrina Paseman's brother-in-law works was running low on personal protective equipment in March, she knew she had to help. Paseman and her family began calling hardware stores across California to source
But that success was short-lived. By the third day of calls, Paseman and her family were struggling to find more masks.
"We realized that in order to actually be able to help on a large scale, this is not a sustainable solution," Paseman, a former mechanical engineer at Apple who spent more than five years working on the Mac product line, told Business Insider. "So what I did then was I went back to my engineering side of things ... I tried to understand why the N95 masks were the golden standard and what made them so good."
That led Paseman and Megan Duong, who also worked at Apple in its subsidiary Claris, to found Fix The Mask. The project intends to address the shortage of N95 masks by helping people create a brace for ASTM-grade surgical masks that makes them more effective by forming a tighter seal around the face.
Fix The Mask offers two different types of brace designs, depending on the supplies you have available: one made by cutting a pattern out of a rubber sheet and another made from three rubber bands chained together, as shown in the video below. In addition to the do-it-yourself solutions, the website offers specifications for small- and large-scale production of the rubber-sheet brace.
When the University of Iowa's Carver School of Medicine tested the fit of the mask's first iteration, all 12 participating physicians wearing the brace passed the hospital's required fit test, Paseman said. Fix The Mask has also been working with the University of Pennsylvania to test the fit.
Fix The Mask has since released a second version of their design that's more comfortable and easier to clean. Such improvements are critical for healthcare workers that wear masks all day and may not have much time for cleaning.
Though frontline healthcare workers are in need the most when it comes to PPE, Fix The Mask's designs are geared toward everyone, Paseman said.
"In places where there are small airspaces, like an elevator or a grocery store without good ventilation, everyone inside of that store is at risk," Paseman said. "So that's not just a problem for healthcare workers that are literally face-to-face with someone who definitely has the disease."
Surgical masks and other face coverings have been worn by the general public throughout the pandemic to prevent wearers from spreading the virus, but N95 respirators are critical for protecting medical workers from the patients they're treating.
N95 respirators have two qualities that make them more effective in virus protection compared with other masks: Their tight fit helps them form a better seal, and they include a filter made from melt-blown fabric. As demand for the material used to make that filter has surged throughout the outbreak, manufacturers have faced difficulties in producing N95 respirators in large quantities, CBS reported.
Melt-blown fabric filters are found in both masks made for consumers and those designed for medical staff, according to NPR, but it's the combination of those filters with the tight fit that makes the N95 the mask of choice for healthcare workers.
After she dissected an N95 mask and did some research on the filtration material inside, Paseman realized ASTM surgical masks that are modified to fit more tightly can offer better protection — making them the next best option for those who cannot access N95 masks.
Paseman and Duong are now working on a third iteration that's more comfortable and durable, which they hope to have ready by the end of June. The updated version will have integrated nose cushions and dual straps that make it easier to put on and take off, Paseman said. Fix The Mask's goal is to be able to make this third version cheaply so that they can be donated to underserved communities.
"So we're committing ourselves as an organization to figure out how to make this solution as easily accessible, widespread, and also as robust as possible," Paseman said.
Fix The Mask is vastly different from the work Paseman had been doing at Apple. But she said she learned a lesson about product design while at the company that could be applied to any project.
"I learned that good design comes from simple design," Paseman said. "And simple design can only be achieved by really fully understanding the problem."
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