A Pittsburgh organization helps nonprofit turn snorkel gear into PPE

Are you down with PPE? MasksOn is converting snorkel masks into reusable face masks for health care workers. 

by Brian Conway
June 1, 2020

A Boston nonprofit is converting snorkel masks into reusable personal protective equipment with the help of some funding from Pittsburgh. MasksOn, a Boston startup, is receiving financial support from one of Western Pennsylvania’s foundations to create a more permanent solution to protect frontline workers in need of personal protective equipment.

In April, Pittsburgh’s RK Mellon Foundation committed $15 million in funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of their health-innovation grants included $200,000 for reusable, emergency use face shields made out of retrofitted full-face snorkel masks.

Turning Snorkel Gear into PPE

“One of the big issues we were discovering is that even with N95 masks, the rate they have to be disposed of creates resource constraints,” said Sam Reiman, director of the RK Mellon Foundation. “That creates a burden, fast, to any institution.”

The shields are made by MasksOn.org, a newly established, volunteer-based nonprofit organization led by workers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Google engineers.

The benefits of snorkel mask & FDA regulations

The masks are not yet FDA approved, but are permitted under an updated FDA Emergency Use Authorization for face shields. They require the use of a bacterial/viral filter, which Reiman says is much cheaper than constant purchasing of N95 masks, especially since the retrofitted snorkel masks are reusable and sanitizable.

Al Novak, Chief Development Officer at Excela Health, one of the recipient organizations, says his organization has been testing five of the masks in their emergency department and has been pleased with their performance. And while the masks are designed to keep users safe from the coronavirus, Novak believes there is an additional, more human benefit to using this particular model.

“You can see the eyes of your provider,” he said. “And it’s in those eyes where you get the empathy, the hope from the provider. With a lot [of PPE], you can’t see the eyes; it looks like you’ve got some type of Star Wars character coming at you. So much of the process of the healing experience, you need to see the eyes of your physician or nurse.”

“I think that these masks — I don’t want to use the word “viral,” given the pandemic — they could become the go-to mask.”

RK Mellon support = more MasksOn kits for Pittsburgh

100% of the grant goes toward the masks’ manufacturing and distribution in Western PA. RK Mellon’s contribution will cover 4,000 masks that will be provided to Allegheny County’s Federally Qualified Health Centers as well as healthcare providers and firefighters in Westmoreland County.

As of May 28, 192 kits have been distributed to the region, and the facility is currently producing 700 units a day, with plans to increase that number to 1,000.

“Working with the R. K. Mellon Foundation has enabled MasksOn.org to better identify and outfit teams in communities that are hard hit by COVID-19 and not as well equipped to handle the surge of patients as some major metropolitan areas. In addition, it has expanded our view into which workers need protective gear: beyond healthcare into first responder networks. We are grateful for this guidance, as well as their financial support.” Sanjay Vakil, the executive director of MasksOn.org, sent via email.

Healthcare workers can request a mask from the MasksOn website.


What is the RK Mellon Foundation?

Established in 1947, RK Mellon is the region’s largest philanthropy, with an endowment valued over $2.4 billion as of year-end 2018. That same year, they paid out grants and PRIs totaling over $127 million. Their focus is on regional economic development and conservation, along with education, human services, and capacity-building for nonprofits.

More of our Pittsburgh coronavirus coverage:

📸 Header photo: Dr. Jackie Boehme, left, and Dr. Alex Stone, right, field testing the MasksOn.org face shield at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (Photograph provided by MasksOn.org).

Brian Conway is a freelance enterprise reporter based in Pittsburgh's South Side. He is a member-owner and communications manager at the Work Hard Pittsburgh digital media cooperative.

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