On the front lines of the Philadelphia region’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no greater worry than the shortage of masks, respirators, and other protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

Hearing of the desperate pleas for safety, Drexel University design professor Genevieve Dion sprang into action last week, shifting 3D knitting machines from a Department of Defense project to the challenge of rapidly developing masks and respirators.

“This is an opportunity to show what advanced manufacturing can do and rapid prototyping can do,” said Dion, who also directs Drexel’s Center for Functional Fabrics. It houses the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center, which aims to revive the region’s textile and garment manufacturing industries.

The immediate goal is to develop surgical masks that can be washed, sized, and even be made of anti-bacterial and anti-viral material, said Charles Cairns, dean of the Drexel School of Medicine, who is helping Dion get her samples into the hands of doctors for feedback.

Longer term, Dion is working with Oat Foundry, an engineering and design firm founded by six Drexel graduates, to develop a respirator — a mask with an air filter that provides much more protection — that is washable and reusable.

If the designs are successful, they would be made available to knitting mills for large-scale productions — and could provide one example of how the COVID-19 disaster spurs industrial innovation. The Fabric Discovery Center at 3101 Market St. can produce several hundred masks a day, Dion said. Its prototype is still in the planning stages.

Drexel's Center for Functional Fabrics opened in September. The $7 million, 10,000 square foot Center has turned its attention to new designs of surgical masks and respirators needed in the fight against COVID-19, says the center’s director, Genevieve Dion, shown in front of its Comez warp knitting machine, in a 2019 photo.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Drexel's Center for Functional Fabrics opened in September. The $7 million, 10,000 square foot Center has turned its attention to new designs of surgical masks and respirators needed in the fight against COVID-19, says the center’s director, Genevieve Dion, shown in front of its Comez warp knitting machine, in a 2019 photo.

While respirators, known as N95 masks, get more attention and are more critical to safety, there’s a need for both N95 and surgical masks, said Cairns. “At our 11th Street clinic, there’s just been a desperate plea for supplies,” he said. “I think everyone is concerned with what’s going to happen, especially within the next two-week period.”

Andy Carter, chief executive of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that some facilities could run out of protective equipment in “hours or days.”

“The immediate need for personal protection equipment is our priority right now,” he said.

Protecting health-care workers from COVID-19 is crucial because as cases surge, staffing is also expected to be stretched thin. Health-care workers accounted for about 10% of Philadelphia’s 252 cases as of Tuesday.

There are signs around Pennsylvania that manufacturers and health-care organizations are working together to relieve some of the supply strain.

Brookville Glove Manufacturing in Jefferson County was shutting down last week to comply with Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close non-"life-sustaining" businesses. Then it got a call from a big nursing home operator based nearby asking if Brookville could make washable and reusable masks for its employees, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The company, which was expecting to furlough 20 workers, pivoted to making masks.

St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem said Tuesday that it was working with two Lehigh Valley companies, Filament Innovations and ProtoCAM, to produce N95 respirator masks and other protective equipment. “We are about to run a supply chain logistics marathon, and we are looking at creative, alternate solutions for supplies like masks,” Megan Augustine, director of St. Luke’s Simulation Center, said in a news release.

Elysa Lipkin runs a small sportswear company in Philadelphia called MTO Sports that she had to shut down last week because of Wolf’s order. MTO normally makes referee shirts and other sports uniforms, but could make up to 1,500 surgical masks a day, she said. She said she could also make gowns needed by health-care workers.

But as of Monday, MTO, on 11th Street near Spring Garden, was not among the 2,486 companies that received waivers from the Wolf administration allowing them to operate even though they don’t fit into one of the life-sustaining categories.

“I feel ridiculous just being able to do nothing,” Lipkin said.

Through Monday, the state had received 15,092 waiver requests. It denied 2,135 and found that waivers were not needed for 1,279.

Hospitals and health-care workers are also taking a more direct route to adding to their supplies: collecting donations of equipment from the community.

AtlanticCare has received more 10,000 items, including masks, respirators, shields, gloves and gowns.

On Saturday, sometime after a nurse at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne posted a video on Facebook asking the community for donations, a Home Depot truck pulled up to the hospital and dropped off 500 N95 respirators.

That was unusual, said Ann D’Antonio, spokesperson for Trinity Mid-Atlantic, which owns St. Mary. Most of the donations have been from community members who use the masks to protect themselves during home-repair projects, she said.

Meanwhile, at Drexel, the speed of the development work has been breathtaking, Dion said.

“Every day we do R&D that’s worth a month or a year,” she said.