As folks across the Green Mountain State scramble to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, one East Montpelier man has found a way to turn his hobby into a means of PPE production that keeps local healthcare workers and first responders safer on the job.
Jon Irwin, the IT Manager at Central Vermont Home Health & Hospice (CVHHH), is using his three 3-D printers to construct reusable, National Institute of Health-approved face shields. The shields have already been distributed to emergency responders—Barre City and Barre Town police and the East Montpelier Fire Department were among the first to receive them—as well as CVHHH caregivers who continue to fulfill the group’s mission of “providing medically necessary and supportive care to people of all ages.”
“You hear a lot about hospital workers, but you don’t hear about homecare workers, visiting nurses who walk into people’s homes every day,” said Irwin.
Homecare workers define what organizations like CVHHH provide. Central Vermont Home Health is a not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) serving 23 communities in Washington and Orange counties. A recap of 2019 saw an average of 890 patients serviced daily by the group, which cared for nearly 3,000 patients in 2019.
“I think what [Jon’s] doing is heartwarming,” said Kelly Fridinger, the RN/Quality Nurse Educator at CVHHH. His efforts, she added, “are hugely important in preventing illness with our staff and clients.” As for her organization’s role in the bigger picture of the COVID-19 crisis, Fridinger noted that “We have an opportunity to shine, to provide much needed and excellent service,” that she hopes will allow more people to “understand the role home health plays.”
Irwin said he got the 3-D printing bug after initially viewing the technology as a curiosity. His interest grew into a hobby, and then into a side business. His 3-D printing shop on Etsy, 3DVTDesigns, has made over 700 sales since
opening in 2018 and boasts a 5-star (perfect) rating. Customer reviews posted online reflect a high level of satisfaction with products ranging from pen/pencil holders, headphone stands, toothbrush holders, and soap dishes to a variety of small, plastic knick-knacks.
Those currently wishing to purchase Irwin’s trinkets, however, will have to wait. Visitors to his site are greeted by a message: “Hello! Due to the COVID-19 virus, I am utilizing my 3D Printers to produce 3D Printed Face Shields to Medical Staff. I will fulfill all current orders. Shop will reopen once we get through this. Stay strong!”
Like many of CVHHH’s administrative staff members, Irwin currently alternates between working at home and going to the office, but his worksite doesn’t change the shield-printing schedule that runs all through the night. “Come night time, I might start a job at 8:00 or 9:00 and that means I have to stay up until 12 or 1 to get the next batch going so it can print overnight while I sleep,” he said.
Irwin said he is able to print as many as 24–30 shields in a 24-hour period, providing he has the supplies he needs. “Every once in a while the printer runs out of filament when I’m sleeping,” he said, but otherwise, the process is one he described as “set it and forget it.”
The filament Irwin uses in the printers is a plant-based plastic, polylactic acid, which he purchased—along with the rest of the materials—out of his own pocket. He recently started a GoFundMe campaign to help offset costs. As of April 30, the campaign had received $700 of its $1,000 goal.
While the printers produce a unique and essential component of the shields, the other components—clear plastic transparency sheets, the kind you’d remember from a classroom overhead projector, and waistband elastics that serve as the head strap—have been purchased at various retailers.
Assembly of the shields takes place in a small conference room at CVHHH headquarters in Berlin. Many of those assembling the shields are Personal Care Associates (PCAs) who are on the CVHHH payroll but not currently visiting as many patients as they did before Governor Scott’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
According to Irwin’s GoFundMe site, Sam Hensel-Hunter of CVHHH has been helping with logistics and training PCAs to assemble the face shields. Assistants Mark Patterson and Crystal Barrows have helped assemble nearly 250 face shields for CVHHH visiting staff and first responders in Central Vermont.
With his shields all around Central Vermont, Irwin is thinking of shifting his operation to produce what he calls “ear savers.” Not widely available, they are small clips to which the head straps from face masks and shields can be attached instead of a person’s ears. “Nurses love them,” he notes. “I’m just glad I can fight this virus my way, and help the nurses fight it their way.”