A team of UCLA engineers, dentists and physicians are manufacturing reusable face shields for respirators that cost less than $20 to produce and could offer more effective and comfortable protection for health care workers than N95 masks.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many medical personnel have been wearing powered air-purifying respirators, or PAPRs, which consist of a helmet that filters out virus particles and a disposable face shield that prevents droplets from reaching the wearer’s eyes, nose and mouth.

PAPRs are more comfortable to wear than N95s, which can cause skin abrasions when worn for extended periods of time, said Dr. Joseph Meltzer, medical director of the cardiothoracic ICU at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Medical workers can contaminate themselves while removing N95s, and people who grow facial hair have to shave every day in order for N95s to seal properly, he added.

“A PAPR is more user-friendly, tolerable for extended periods of time and a little bit safer,” Meltzer said. “It filters out 100% of particles, while an N95 only filters 95%.”

But PAPRs are more expensive and limited in supply than N95s, Meltzer said. While the helmets are reusable, the face shields are intended to be disposable.

UCLA engineers have addressed those problems by creating low-cost, reusable face shields that attach to PAPR helmets.

Meltzer said the shields are more durable and easier to put on and take off than typical PAPR shields and create a comfortable seal without exerting pressure on the face.

“We designed our face shield to function better than the manufacturer’s product, which was in short supply,” he said. “It is less fragile, so it can be reused after being cleaned with ultraviolet radiation or solutions such as Clorox, peroxide or soap and water.”

Meltzer said the shield has already been tested by 20 health care workers in the intensive care unit — men and women with different head and face shapes — who said the shields were comfortable and provided excellent visibility and airflow.

The shields have been approved by UCLA Health leadership for use by the system’s medical staff, a spokesperson said.

Residents in the UCLA School of Dentistry are producing the shields under the direction of Dr. Ben Wu, chair of the division of advanced prosthodontics at the dental school.

Wu said the team intends to produce thousands of shields during the next few weeks to address a shortage of supplies, and is also working to contract with manufacturers who can quickly ramp up production of additional face shields.

Meltzer said UCLA plans to supply the shields to other health systems and put open-source design instructions online.

Wu is also leading an effort to produce reusable 3D-printed face shields that don’t require a PAPR helmet.

Bioengineers at the dental school and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering said earlier this month that a first batch of about 50,000 face shields will go to UCLA Health. In the coming weeks, medical device companies will manufacture the face shields and sell them at cost.

Another UCLA researcher is developing a low-cost ventilator.

Earlier this month, UCLA electrical engineering graduate student Glen Meyerowitz put together a prototype of a simpler version of a ventilator that would be used in a hospital, which has shown promising results. Meyerowitz has started working with companies on manufacturing a medical-grade design for testing at UCLA Health by June.

madeleine@smdp.com

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