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U of M innovations help provide critical supplies during COVID-19 crisis

Callan Gray
Updated: June 12, 2020 10:39 PM
Created: June 12, 2020 10:29 PM

Innovations are happening every day at the University of Minnesota to help in the fight against COVID-19.

In March, a U of M team developed the coventor to help patients breathe, through collaboration with Boston Scientific, Medtronic and United Health Group.

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Production quickly got underway at Boston Scientific's Maple Grove facility in early May.

"One of the advantages of this product is it's a bridge to a ventilator," said Brad Sorenson, the senior vice president of manufacturing and supply chain for Boston Scientific. "So before someone has to go to a full ventilator, this can maybe mitigate that or slow that transition."

Boston Scientific gave 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS an inside look at the area where these life-saving machines are made. 

A team has been hand-making each coventor, testing them carefully before packing them into boxes. It takes about 45 minutes to make each one, start to finish. They manufactured about 250 every day.

The team made 3,000 by the end of May, sending them to United Health Group for distribution across the country.

"Incredibly fast ramp up, which is what we kind of need to flatten the curve here," said Sorenson. "If we have more demand, we'll make more. If demand were to explode, then we might bring in additional manufacturing partners."

The idea was generated at the University of Minnesota as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the supply of ventilators. 

Aaron Tucker, the technical development coordinator at the University's Baaken Medical Devices Center, said a colleague brought the idea to him as a way to help with the shortage.

"From the initial meeting with Dr. Richardson to FDA approval, it took exactly 30 days," said Tucker. "It was very fast."

The coventor forces air into the patient's lungs by regularly pressing an Ambu Bag.

"It's basically a one-armed robot to squeeze this bag for you in a predictable way," said Tucker, who said hospitals can use it in an emergency situation.

"One of the things we were talking about very early on is if it comes to a point where you have COVID and there's no options, there's no ventilators, there's no nurses there to hand ventilate you -- then it would have to be a family member or somebody else that would actually have to squeeze the bag to keep you alive," said Tucker. "Our concept was we want to replace that because obviously that's a very scary and dangerous situation for everyone involved."

It's a relatively inexpensive product to make, costing less than $1,000 per coventor. Tucker said they are working to make their designs accessible online as well. 

"Our goal was to make this as simple as possible so that it reaches as many people as possible," said Tucker.

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that they have received requests from as far away as South Africa, India and Europe. 

UnitedHealth Group will be distributing coventors to hospitals with the greatest need.

A spokesperson for the healthcare provider said, "In the U.S., with the surges fading, we anticipate that the majority of these devices will be used as back-up devices. We will respond to requests to support the national stockpile. These devices are very simple and will be very durable so are well suited to storage, and for use in a variety of situations. They may also find use in less developed countries where ventilator resources are lacking and for whom a technically simple, and durable solution has unique advantages."

A different team on the University of Minnesota's campus has been supporting another critical supply, masks.

"We as educators and as researchers are putting our brainpower together to make sure we're able to contribute in this time of need, in this time of crisis and using all of the skills and resources that we have," said Dr. Linsey Griffin, a professor with the College of Design.

She specializes in understanding the human body and how to make products that function effectively with the body.

Dr. Griffin and a team of more than 60 students and faculty have now developed three new types of masks for healthcare workers.

"The initial design really came from that initial need, we needed to prototype and make something really fast, that's simple to create that can contour around the complex face shapes," said Dr. Griffin.

They've now produced 6,000 single-use face masks, which have a complete seal around the nose and mouth. The seal can be adjusted based on the shape of the user's face.

They've also manufactured 600 reusable filters that can be used on anesthesia masks.

"Instead of putting oxygen or whatever else you would put into the mask, you put the filter on to help protect the wearer," explained Griffin.

Both of those styles are designed to replace the N95 in a crisis.

"We have done comparisons between N95 filtration and this filtration and it does filter out over 95 percent of the particles," she said.
They are also assembling 50,000 general purpose masks. The materials are being put into kits to distribute this summer.

All three styles are meant for healthcare workers.

"It's a crisis supply," said Griffin. "So if those supply chains break down again, if we somehow see a huge uptick in COVID-19 and the need to use PPE supplies more frequently in healthcare organizations, this supply is there to help buffer if the N95 or other PPE facemask, all of that supply, goes down to zero."


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