SAN ANTONIO, Texas (KXAN) – From masks to ventilator splitters, researchers and doctors in Texas are utilizing 3D printing to help save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Inventionworks innovation hub is trying to 3D print masks for healthcare workers.

“Though it’s still early in the process, the team envisions designing and printing a face mask prototype with a reusable plastic shell, a replaceable filter, straps and a flexible foam or rubber seal. Researchers want to find a method to custom fit masks as needed and make them in a way that the components can be sanitized in a dishwasher or washing machine,” school officials said.

UT Austin researchers exploring ways to 3D print masks for healthcare workers. (Photo Courtesy: UT Austin)
UT Austin researchers exploring ways to 3D print masks for healthcare workers. (Photo Courtesy: UT Austin)

An hour and a half south of Austin, a group of doctors in San Antonio designed a 3D printed ventilator circuit splitter in case we run out of ventilators

Dr. Jennifer Erian told KXAN while hospitals in Texas aren’t reporting being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients yet, she said many doctors don’t want to be in a situation where they’ve run out of ventilators and have to choose who gets one and who doesn’t.

“In the countries where this is a bigger issue, they don’t have enough support, and they’re actually having to choose who gets a ventilator versus who does not,” she said. “This is a big problem in Italy right now. I’ve read horrifying stories from doctors having to make these ethical decisions.”

She said the concept of having patients share a ventilator isn’t new.

“This was used in the Las Vegas shooting like we mentioned, and that’s what the idea was based off of, and they actually were able to save multiple lives during that time,” Erian told KXAN.

What is new is the design that can be printed using a 3D printer, thus making the splitter easily accessible to hospitals all across the world.

“This morning I could’ve designed this. We could’ve put this out on the Internet. And by this afternoon, half way around the world, people could be using this device right now,” said Dr. Bryan Lai.

Lai said the biggest concern right now is that the hospitals would run out of ventilators. “This is the first time we’ve seen such a strong demand all at once,” he said.

Erian said they’re waiting on the Food and Drug Administration to issue an emergency approval for the 3D printed device, but in the meantime, she said, “I don’t think we can say the names, but there are people testing it because the shortages are happening across the U.S. already.”

The doctors said each 3D printed splitter costs only about 50 cents. They’ve uploaded the design to their website, so anyone with a 3D printer can download it and print it.

They said this is for the worst case scenario. “Texas is not at this level yet. Hopefully we will not get there, but in the event we do, hopefully this could help save lives,” said Erian.