A new nonprofit, developed at a St. Mary’s County business incubator known as TechPort, has been working to develop a heat box which is able to sanitize personal protective equipment so that it can be reused over and over again.
The group, Southern Maryland Loves You, is made up of about 100 people consisting of mostly engineers and a couple of medical professionals. It was founded by Matt Hayes, an engineer, who recognized the need for alternative ways to produce and stretch the use of high demand medical equipment.
Tommy Luginbill, director of TechPort, shared with Southern Maryland News that before the pandemic there was a “small collective group who frequented” the TechPort facility. Once COVID-19 began impacting hospitals and long-term care centers in the region, that same group began working together, “spit balling ideas,” he said, regarding ways they could help.
In April, they began designing and 3-D printing face mask frames, giving the user a choice of medium for covering their nose and mouth, along with face shields. After a few members of the group began posting videos of the process online, people from all over began reaching out and asking questions.
Soon, “there was too much of a demand to keep up,” he said, as supplies to make the PPE were running out. They decided they needed to come up with a more efficient way to help.
Hayes brought in a toaster oven with the idea that the heat would kill COVID-19. Although the process seemed to be successful, Luginbill mentioned you should not replicate the process with appliances at home.
“The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] was waiting for someone to propose the idea,” he said. After contacting the FDA in April, the director received a response within 48 hours. The team was then asked to prove heat was a viable way to sanitize PPE. “That’s when the races began.”
Burch Oil and Triton Defense came together to “build the idea out of Matt’s head,” Luginbill said, to create the heat sanitation box. “We had a working prototype in four days” which they were able to use to conduct testing.
He said once word got out, “everyone was so willing to help with the testing,” including a co-inventor of the N95 mask, the U.S. Navy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
SMLY delivered a “hot box” to University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata last spring after the nonprofit selected them to receive the box free of charge, William Grimes, vice president of ancillary services at the medical center, said through a spokesperson.
Since acquiring the device, the hospital in La Plata has been using it periodically, “most notably to dry infection prevention suits that are worn by clinical personnel when providing care to a COVID positive patient.” After being removed, the suits are washed with an anti-bacterial spray, then brought to the box for drying, providing an additional measure of protection against the spread of the virus.
Grimes mentioned the staff has nicknamed the box, “the toaster” and noted that they appreciated SMLY letting them participate in testing the process.
“It is a great example of the type of ingenuity and resolve our community has brought to battling the pandemic,” he said.
On the day before Thanksgiving, the FDA came out with guidelines on the use of dry heat to help support the single-user reuse of certain PPE by health care personnel while there is a limited supply during the pandemic. Luginbill mentioned the hot box received a tier three rating but the group will continue to provide them with data so they may soon receive authorization to also sanitize hospital gowns, gloves and any other types of PPE.
Luginbill said it was important to the group the first devices stay in the region, although they’ve been approached by hospitals from all over the world.
“We hope to get another one in St. Mary’s County, if not more than one, and then Calvert County,” the director said, adding, Southern Maryland will be served first and they’ll expand from there.
Hayes shared SMLY wanted to “make a real impact” when they decided to “use what is already out there” and sanitize existing PPE. They settled on a controlled heating process which would kill more than just COVID-19.
“We wanted to build something big that would help a lot of people, even service a whole medical team,” he said.
The result was the 6,000-pound “hot box,” which can sanitize 2,400 masks at a time, totaling 24,000 in a day with one cycle taking about an hour. After sanitizing PPE in the “hot box,” the engineer said the same mask is always supposed to be returned to the same person.
He noted the amount of effort it takes to get a product through the FDA, especially if “you are a nonprofit with no money,” and said “others are stunned at what we’re doing.” Now, the plan is to help others copy the process.
By mid-January, two units were sold to St. Mary’s County and one to Charles County, to be used by the local health departments and nursing homes.
Luginbill’s contract with the University of Maryland is scheduled to expire on March 1 of this year, ending his work with TechPort. While he claimed he had worked hard to “get buy-in from all the major stakeholders,” including the county, the Navy and the University of Maryland, “to date, none has been offered.”
He said he’s happy to have a full house of tenants at TechPort, “and technically speaking, they all get to stay for half of this year as I found funding to have the rent prepaid for all of them.” Luginbill will remain on the board of directors for SMLY You and “continue to push out the hot box to as many hospitals as possible.”