Group of Charlotte makers responds to PPE shortage by making face shields, leading fundraising effort 

The campaign resulted in more than $100,000 raised in the first 2 1/2 weeks, enabling the delivery of more than 76,640 face shields. 

BY REID CREAGER

The COVID-19 pandemic is no day at the beach for anyone. But that’s where a Charlotte family got an idea to better protect health care workers involved with the virus.

Charlotte Latin School junior Katie Chai said her father—S. Jean Chai, M.D., a physician at Atrium Health—read an article about 3D-printed respirators in Italy. His wife, Janie Chai, is a physician at Novant Health. Both expressed concern about the nationwide shortage of medical protective gear.

“He asked me if it would be possible to replicate the idea at my school’s engineering lab” for face shields, Katie said. “I told him it was and contacted my teacher, Mr. Dubick, that night. Mr. Dubick called me back right away, and we started working out the details!”

She had called the right person. Tom Dubick, Charlotte Latin’s engineering lab director, is the innovation and design chairman at the school.

The face shields were designed by a group of engineers led by Dubick and Terence Fagan, PhD at UNC Charlotte. Alex Cabral, director of fabrication for the School of Architecture at UNCC, told WCCB-TV that the shortage of face shields “hit pretty close to home and we just figured we just needed to start doing whatever we could.”

A collection of engineers, architects, designers and makers who volunteered their time and expertise quickly led to the formation of Charlotte MEDI (Medical Emergency Device Innovation). It consists of more than 100 professionals and academics, over 400 volunteers in the Charlotte area, and a dozen partners who have donated materials and services.

After a few days of minor modification, the group prototyped the first few dozen face shields for use by doctors and nurses at nearby hospitals.

The team created a clear plastic shield that extends an inch or two in front of the nose, leaving the user room to wear a surgical mask underneath.

The design met the standards outlined in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of Face Masks.”

Immediate generosity

Based on real-time clinical feedback, the engineers decided to make reusable, durable face shields which featured a thick piece of clear PETG. Inspired by the #MillionMaskChallenge, a GoFundMe campaign followed.

The results were more than gratifying: more than $100,000 raised in the first 2 1/2 weeks, enabling the delivery of more than 76,640 face shields.

Once Charlotte MEDI discovered the need was so great, it revised its original goal of 10,000 face shields to 100,000 in order to protect as many health care workers as possible, as quickly as possible. The 100,000 goal enabled Charlotte MEDI to distribute face shields to other cities in North Carolina, as well as cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Boston, Baton Rouge and more.

The GoFundMe then became the way to pursue injection molding and manufacture thousands of face shields per day.

“In a few hours, we met our initial goal and after the weekend was over we had raised over $20,000,” said Katie, who has been taking engineering classes and learning about 3D printing since the seventh grade. “It’s so humbling to see the amount of money we raised in such a short time.”

Katie’s role in the project was mainly as a volunteer and documenter. After contacting her teacher, she began assembling the face shields with her family and gathering elastic. She also created instruction documents outlining the assembly steps for the face shields so other people can get involved in the project.

She said her biggest satisfaction was “seeing the pictures of the doctors and nurses using the face shields! It’s very fulfilling to see actual people being helped by our efforts.”

Life lessons

Katie said she has learned a lot applying the engineering design method in a real-life scenario.

“It’s very interesting to see a concept I learned about in engineering class solve a real medical problem. I don’t think high-schoolers are able to see an idea materialize into a product very often, so I am grateful for this experience.”

She has drawn inspiration from her aunt, Anna Chai, who devoted a lot of energy to the project. “I think she is the reason this project has grown so large. She is a great female role model.”

When asked about her plans, Katie sounded like a future inventor. She wants to study engineering in college.

“This experience has given me an extensive look into the prototyping and manufacturing aspects of engineering. I was very excited to see a simple idea grow into thousands of real-life products. I also love seeing the impact an invention can have on people.”