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Community steps up to help CFVH

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

By Ed Moreth, The Sanders County Ledger, 4/9/20

THE TASTE TEST – Clark Fork Valley Hospital Respiratory Care Practitioner Betty Walters sprays a saccharin mist into a hood to determine if Physician Assistant Nick Lawyer can taste the spray through a filter for a prototype protective surgical mask that was created with a 3D printer at Thompson Falls High School.

Clark Fork Valley Hospital has had no recorded coronavirus cases as of last week, but that's not stopping the staff from making sure they're ready if it happens, according to Physician Assistant Nick Lawyer, who is taking the lead on getting special protective masks for staff members.

"It's going to mean the difference between us having enough protective gear and one of our employees getting sick," said Lawyer, who's in charge of getting masks delivered from Thompson Falls High School, which is making them on the school's 3D printer. Eric Nygaard of Thompson Falls High School adopted a prototype plastic surgical mask designed by a physician at Billings Clinic. The mask is designed to work with a 2-1/4-inch filter insertion. "What's good about this design is there is a square filter and that's the only thing that needs to be replaced after use," said Lawyer, who was responsible for testing the masks and finding some sort of effective material for the filter. The masks themselves have already been tested for leakage and have passed. Last week, Lawyer and Betty Walters, a respiratory care practitioner for 45 years, tested four filters. Each of the filters was made from materials of different surgical wraps. Lawyer said the filter is the key to stopping infectious materials from getting through to the wearer's lungs.

"I'd point out that most certainly some of our employees will get sick, but these masks will help reduce how many get sick and will keep us protected," said Lawyer. The test involved Lawyer wearing a mask with a plastic hood over his head while Walters sprayed a saccharin mist through a hole in the face of the hood. Walters is one of four respiratory therapists at Clark Fork Valley Hospital. She said that if Lawyer could taste the saccharin, the filter failed, as was the case of the first one. The second test, where the filter material was doubled, was successful. The third and fourth tests, both of different surgical wrap materials, were also successful. In the last three tests, Lawyer moved his head back and forth and up and down and talked during the test to simulate someone wearing the mask while working. Lawyer said the fourth filter was the easiest to breathe through. The hospital has tested seven different filters with the school's 3D masks and four filters have failed, said Lawyer. He's been a physician assistant for seven years, but has been in the medical field since 1997 when he served on the Polson ambulance service.

The school has provided the hospital with eight prototype masks of different sizes and shapes and is in the process of making more. "The Thompson Falls School District has supported us without hesitation. In fact, the masks were their idea," said Lawyer. He said the school has been instrumental in helping to keep hospital employees safe. The masks will be for staff members working in the hospital emergency room, in-patient unit, and during surgery.

The hospital has plenty of material for the filters on hand, but they need large quantities. Michael Cooper, a Plains upholsterer, will be cutting the fabric into small pieces for the masks. The hospital is looking into ways to clean the filters between uses instead of tossing them. Mariah Corbin of Plains came up with an idea of using the same type of straps that competitive swimmers use for their goggles to hold he surgical masks tightly in place. In addition, another Plains resident is working on a possible prototype ventilator.

The hospital already has N-95 surgical masks, but Lawyer said they don't have enough if the Coronavirus strikes Sanders County. A Plains resident donated a box of 20 masks last week, but Lawyer believes the hospital would need thousands. "I'm building a mask that protects the wearer from the world and that's important," said Lawyer, who also said the goal is to get around 100 masks from the school.

The hospital has also taken other actions in preparation for an invasion of the COVID-19, such as stocking up on medicines and creating a dedicated respiratory clinic. The majority of its staff members are wearing some type of mask at work and sanitation stations are set up throughout the hospital. However, Lawyer said community members can be of a big help to Clark Fork Valley Hospital by taking precautions to stem the spreading of the virus before it becomes a local problem. He said it's important to stay home, unless a person must go out, continually wash their hands with soap and water, observe the six-foot distancing directive, and refrain from touching the face. "We want to slow the spread of this virus," said Lawyer. "People choosing to stay home buys the hospital time to get ready because they're not out spreading the disease."

Lawyer said it can't be underestimated the importance of the mask project, noting that the COVID-19 is a very infectious virus and that the clinical team at Clark Fork Valley Hospital is at high risk. "Personal protective equipment, and masking in particular, is a key means of protecting our clinical team members," said Lawyer. "The work that Eric Nygaard and the T-Falls school district are doing is going to help protect us - I am proud of what he's done."

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