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San Antonio Nurse Creates Highly Efficient Masks for Possible Surge in COVID-19 Cases

An abundant supply and a decent filtration — these were two main priorities of a Black chief executive nurse at the University of Texas Health System in San Antonio whose ambition was to create N-95 masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t too long ago that nurse Tommye Austin, who joined the San Antonio hospital in May 2017, found herself cruising through the aisles at Lowe’s in search of AC filters. Together with the Southwest Research Institute, Austin has been able to make 600 masks. She hopes to produce 6,500 more.

Tommye Austin (Source: UT Heath Systems)

“We had this AC filter material we purchased from Houston, Texas,” Austin, who also helped orchestrate University Hospital’s response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting, told ABC’s KSAT 12 news. “We started creating a mask that would fit like an N-95, that would have that whole seal across the face so that if you put it on, you would have a seal similar to the current N-95 we use.”

Her intention was to produce enough personal protective equipment in case a possible shortage hit her region.

“In the event that we get a surge of COVID-19 patients in San Antonio, which is predicted to happen in May, we are making sure we have adequate and sufficient equipment for employees,” she said. “Once we learned that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] had given us the ability to create masks, rather than using a bandana or a handkerchief, we decided to look at creating our own N-95.”

And when it came down to testing their design, they received exceptional news — the masks’ filtration rates at 99.5 percent with one material and 97.8 percent filtration with another.

That means the masks work at a higher efficiency than the original which can eliminate at least 95 percent of the virus or bacteria that tries to get through, Austin said.

“We have been working with the Southwest Research Institute in making sure that we just not develop something we think is a good product but something that we know is a good product by using science,” she said. “It doesn’t have what we call carbon dioxide buildup, which could make you dizzy or [give you] a headache. It is comfortable, and you can wear it for long periods of time.”

The next step is to share the design with other facilities that may be interested in creating a stockpile of their own.

“Hearing the stories from the nurses in New York and other hot spots, it was just heartbreaking. As a nurse, we are to be advocates for people, so my primary goal was not to make money off this mask or anything. The main purpose of this mask was to keep people safe,” Austin said.

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