Coronavirus: Scuba, snorkeling gear to give health care workers another option for defense

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- From providing safety underwater, to protecting health care workers on the COVID-19 front line, scuba and snorkeling gear are being repurposed to give medical professionals another option for defense.

In separate efforts, a local business and a Stanford University bioengineer have found ways to re-purpose scuba and snorkeling masks. The masks will soon be shipped to hospitals across the Bay Area and the U.S., at no cost.

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"We work on these types of problems no matter whether there is a crisis or not, because there is a health crisis around the world no matter what," Bioengineer, Manu Prakash told ABC7 News. "COVID has only exposed the underbelly of the problems that have existed."



Prakash is an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford, and also runs Prakash Lab.

In March, he returned from a work trip in France, and self-quarantined in the same room as his snorkeling gear.

Prakash thought of a way to turn his full-face mask into a reusable option for front-liners without sacrificing visibility.

"You remove the snorkel up on top and you put this coupler, and then you put a viral filter that's already a pre-approved medical device that blocks viruses," he explained.

Prakash has since collaborated with his students to research the effectiveness of what is now known as the Pneumask. He said the first focus was making sure the team was able to clinically prove that something like this works.

"If you go to a hospital and you see the number of times people dispose of the PPE, it dawns on you that this is going to be a big shortage," he explained.

On the Pneumask project website, the mission behind the effort reads:

"Our mission for Pneumask is to provide as much clinical validation as possible on this alternative PPE solution. We have tested a number of prototypes along with our collaborators and have shared those results as an open document, so that others implementing similar solutions can also benefit from those findings. We are also working with the FDA to get Pneumask fully approved as an N95-equivalent PPE. Our goal for this project is to engage a coalition of partners to bring 50,000 Pneumasks to front-line healthcare workers in an equitable manner."

The FDA has approved the Pneumask as a face shield or surgical mask, but not a respirator.

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Prakash and his team have documented and published each step of the process from a clinical and scientific perspective. He said that research was published on a Google Doc, open and free for the world to see. He said doing so created engagement from various communities around the globe.

"The solution involves having a snorkel mask. Another very key component of this is having the capacity to connect viral filters that are already FDA approved- that are used in anesthesia machines already. We developed a coupler that allows us to connect these to a scuba mask," he said.

Prakash also reached out to French researchers and other collaborators and partners to provide the highest quality of defense.

"It's a very special time in terms of doing science right now, that people are coming together in a very open way," Prakash said.

The list of contributors has grown to include doctors, medical professionals, non-profit organizations and others from around the globe.

"If you really want to fashion something that is going to protect the health care worker, which is the first line of defense, the quality of the parts has to be the highest quality," he told ABC7 News.

He said the next step involves preparing to deploy the masks in areas of need, keeping in mind equitable distribution of these limited resources.

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Already, Prakash said 1,600 have gone out to communities across the United States, but more funds are needed in order for additional units to be deployed.

If you'd like to assist in this effort, click here.

He said mask deployment is dependent on the clinicians who have reached out to the team.

"Based on the needs that people have represented to us, we've started sharing these very broadly," Prakash shared.

Each mask costs roughly $40 to make. In a cost breakdown by Prakash, he explained the retail price of snorkeling full-faced masks is between $30 to $35. He said the coupler is between $0.50 to $1, and the filters cost between $3 to $4.

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A separate effort by boating and fishing retail store, West Marine, is already making waves in the Bay Area.

The company recently donated 200 scuba masks with much needed filter adapters to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland.

"We know we have a lot of products that combine with safety," Lorene Frank with West Marine said. "So, just trying to get that out to the community where they can actually be used."

Frank explained the Watsonville-based business had to shut down 20-percent of their stores when COVID-19 hit. However, almost all of them have been reopened as of this weekend, as West Marine is deemed an essential business.

She explained Ocean Reef is the manufacturer that made the adapters that go onto the masks, to be used as a filter.

Both groups expect to reach health care workers in need of personal protective equipment across the U.S.

The masks are meant to be reused.

"Some of the filters, for example, could be used for a couple of days," Prakash said. "Others can even be used for 15-20 days- they're already used on patients for that long a time."

The repurposing of the underwater masks is an essential breakthrough for the most essential workers.

For more on the Pneumask Project, click here.

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