Two regional entities have formed a unique collaboration to distribute more personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the Bering Strait region, in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. Employees with the Bering Strait School District (BSSD) are using school technology to create face shields, masks, and straps for the Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC).

KNOM’s Davis Hovey reports:

Reid Tulloch, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) instructor for the Unalakleet school, says the idea to utilize the school’s Fabrication Laboratory (aka “Fab Lab”) for a life-saving purpose, came from social media. About a month ago, one of Tulloch’s local acquaintances sent him a face mask design online, made to protect people against the spread of COVID-19. So he began tinkering with it.

“I’ve always kind of considered 3D printers as being more prototyping, and building trinkets and things that are useful, cool, and fun, but not to this level.”

Tulloch also mentioned his disappointment that his students couldn’t help him with this important work and research. By mandate from Governor Mike Dunleavy, school has been cancelled for the rest of the school year and BSSD staff are the only people allowed to be inside district buildings and “Fab Labs” at this time.

Instead of creating Eskimo Ninja Warrior logos or Alaska Native ulus, the Bering Strait School Districts’ 3D printers are tasked with producing 1,000 face shields, which accounts for at least one per employee at Norton Sound Health Corporation. In order to meet the sizable demand, while only relying on volunteer efforts from BSSD staff, all of the 3-D printers in the school district are being used to churn out this important PPE for NSHC.

“Four printers going here in Unalakleet, one in St. Michael, two in Savoonga, two in Gambell, and two in Shishmaref.”

– Chase Ervin

Chase Ervin works in the Educational Technology department for BSSD and is one of the main collaborators for this project. He says the regional hospital in Nome had less of a need for cloth face masks and more of a need for face shields, so BSSD is focusing on printing those currently. The school districts’ “Fab Labs” are also producing straps for face masks, which can be used to support homemade cloth masks.

Dr. Bobby Bolen, BSSD’s Superintendent, tried out some of the earlier models and prototypes of face masks, face shields and other designs being made by the districts’ FabLabs. Photo/tweet from public domain via Twitter.

By last week, Ervin and the BSSD team had already gone through eight different prototypes of a face shield before finding the perfect fit. Megan Mackiernan, the Director of Quality and Risk Management for NSHC, explains that some of the previous models used too much material.

“In face shields we want them to be cleanable, easily cleanable; useable by all different body shapes and sizes, and then easy to wear.”

Mackerinan has also been coordinating a large group effort to make face masks for hospital staff across the region, which includes gathering fabrics to send out for sewing. The nature of this face shield collaboration with BSSD though, she says, is unparalleled in the state.

“Chase and I and Dr. Anne Zink, and several people from the state were on a call last week, and the state is really highlighting what we’re doing here as a collaboration between entities. The state has been trying to work with manufacturers and things like that, and nobody has been able to get anything going and producing as fast as the kind of Norton Sound, BSSD collaborative here.”

Mackerinan put out a call asking anyone who is interested in sewing with fabrics to make face masks, as the need for cloth face masks continues to be high in the Bering Strait region she says.

John Weemes, the coordinator of program support for BSSD, echoed Mackerinan’s sentiments about this collaboration. He says BSSD has also been recognized by the Alaska Dept. of Education and Early Development [DEEDs] for its role in making face shields and the school districts’ success with its CTE programs.

Flyer from DEEDs regarding the BSSD/NSHC collaboration to make PPE for healthcare providers. Shared by John Weemes, BSSD (2020).

Weemes, and the majority of the world, didn’t anticipate the rise of a global coronavirus pandemic in 2020, but he says years ago he anticipated BSSD’s “Fab Lab” technology would be setup to fill an important community need.

“I did know that if we could build this capacity that at some point in time, it would transfer out of our buildings and into the community, to fill some great need. I firmly believe that, whether it was for education, resource management, aviation, healthcare we see now, to be ready when that call came. Because I felt like we would have our chance to contribute if we were ready, in some way, to some initiative or effort.”

At this time, BSSD’s “Fab Labs” have printed out about two-hundred face shields of the 1,000 requested by Norton Sound Health Corporation.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, every day a group of school district teachers and staff are donating their time to protect the Bering Strait regions’ healthcare providers.

Image at top: COVID-19 cloth face masks produced by FabLabs in the Bering Strait School District. These and 1,000 face shields are being sent to Norton Sound Health Corporation staff to keep them protected during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo from Chase Ervin, BSSD, used with permission (2020).