A Q&A with Dylan Gunn on his work to combat COVID-19

Dylan Gunn, director of the Engineering Physics Project Lab at UBC, tells us about how his team has mobilized to address shortages of personal protective equipment in the wake of COVID-19.

What projects are you working on to combat COVID-19?

  • Face shields:

One is making face shields – we’ve been assisting a local company that normally manufactures clamshell packaging, which is what your strawberries and blueberries come in at the grocery store. They have all the equipment and material to do this kind of fabrication in a big way. That's one project we've been working on, and I've got prototypes of headbands and face shields sitting here at my desk.

  • Intubation cabinets/COVID boxes:

It's basically a clear plastic enclosure that they can place over a patient when they’re intubating them – that's when they hook the patient up to a ventilator for assisted breathing, which is one of the most dangerous procedures in terms of generating aerosols and droplets that can infect the doctors. If we can put a physical barrier between them and the patient that doesn't interfere with them actually intubating the patient, that’s a frontline way of protecting the doctors. 

  • Improving the fit and seal of masks for healthcare workers:

The masks that we wear in the public are more to stop us contaminating other people, but a healthcare worker’s mask needs to fit tightly. If we can figure out a way to take a common, widely available mask and give it those fit and seal properties of the special N-95 full-face respirators, then we can give the healthcare authorities a lot of flexibility in dealing with these PPE shortages – and not just in BC; there’s interest in this kind of thing all over the world. 

Have you had any major successes so far?

The biggest success that we’ve had has been helping a company called Packright Manufacturing, who are out in Langley – they’ve doing a lot of the technical work. When I first started looking at the face shields in the project lab, we were saying, “How can we come up with a design that can be mass-manufactured?” We did that very quickly and we started laser-cutting them, but very soon we were introduced to this company that has the high-speed, die-cutting punch presses. 

Then we shifted from saying, “OK, instead of us doing the engineering and the design, let’s get the Health Canada application in and let's start talking to the PHSA and let’s round up the network of doctors and nurses we’ve been working with and make sure that it fits and it provides the coverage” – and so we did that very rapidly. Now [Packright Manufacturing] is making about 5,000 of these per day, which is a significant number when you think about how many could be needed. 

Looking ahead, what are your plans for the coming months?

I think there’s going to be a lot of longer-term projects that start to come together where there will be a lot of innovation required on medical and dental procedures. There are a lot of opportunities for engineers to contribute there, working with partners in medicine and nursing. We're also working with researchers in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, who can speak to things like fit-testing and occupational hygiene.

I think there are going to be a lot of problems to tackle and it’s hard to predict what they are right now. Already we need support for rapid prototyping. For example, we have great resources at UBC, like the HATCH Makerspace, which is an incredibly well-equipped facility to rapidly prototype some of these things. But now we need to make 40 or 50 devices so that we can do a fit test across a large number of people and make sure that we’re not testing in a way that is going to introduce bias so that something works only for me – we need to make it work for all healthcare workers.

That’s where we need funding – to make 50 of these every day and iterate the design at that scale. There are going to be a lot of diverse needs that come up, but there are some really interesting problems that need to be solved and there’s a great opportunity for leadership.

Our community of experts at UBC Applied Science have rapidly mobilized in response to the global pandemic, leading vital initiatives to help fight the spread of COVID-19. The Dean’s Impact Fund is helping UBC Applied Science experts develop immediate and long-term solutions to combat the spread of the virus, improve patient outcomes and bolster our nation’s health-care capacity. Donate now →

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