When talking about the mortality rate of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the most important factor is the hospitals’ capacity and conditions. The difference between a 2% and an 8% mortality rate lies in how well the hospitals are able to handle the influx of patients and whether they can offer them adequate care.
That 8% we mentioned aren’t just a hypothesis either – they are what Italy is experiencing as of March 18 with 2,503 deaths out of 31.506 confirmed cases. This catastrophic toll is the result of an overwhelmed healthcare system – hospitals running out of space, personnel, and inventory. It’s in the face of this tragedy that one Italian hospital started making 3D printed respiratory valves to help fill the gap in their arsenal.
The bizarre initiative started with Nunzia Vallini, a journalist at Giornale de Brescia, a newspaper in the northern Italian town of Brescia, also known as the “provincial capital of Italy”.
Respiratory Valves Shortage
On Friday, March 13, Nunzia told Massimo Temporelli, the founder of FabLab – a digital manufacturing lab – that a hospital in the town of Chiari was running out of respiratory valves. These devices are also called resuscitation devices or respiratory machines and they are what medical professionals use to help patients breathe by mechanically ventilating their lungs. Nunzia shared with Massimo that the company that usually supplies the valves to the Chiari hospital had been overwhelmed and couldn’t produce additional units in time which is why people in the hospital were dying of otherwise treatable causes.
Massimo Temporelli, who himself is based in Milan, also in northern Italy, then reached out to Christian Fracassi, the CEO of the engineering firm Isinnova. Fracassi then contacted Michele Faini, a 3D printing expert and designer at the Brescia manufacturing company Lonati SpA.
3D Printing to the Rescue
And the end result of this long chain of contacts and collaboration? Faini reverse-engineered the design of the respiratory valves used by the Chiari hospital and started printing more devices using the Lonati SpA’s SLS 3D printers.
Faini had to reverse-engineer the devices because the original manufacturer refused to give her the design.
“We were ready to print the valves in a couple of hours, and the day after we had 100 valves printed,” Faini told Fast Company. She even brought a 3D printer to the hospital so that they could print the respiratory valves on location. Thanks to her generosity and efforts patients at the Chiari hospital are now able to breathe.
While touching, inspiring, and enlightening, this story also speaks of the main problem of the COVID-19 pandemic – the inability of most healthcare systems to handle a large influx of patients at the same time. Some people seem not to realize this but Northern Italy is not a poor region by any stretch of the definition – to the contrary.
Why Flattening The Curve Matters
Northern Italy is relatively well off. Their problems with the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t due to a lack of funds but because their otherwise good healthcare system can’t deal with so many people at the same time. That’s why the concepts of “flattening the curve” and “social distancing are becoming so important – because if the spread of the disease is slowed down hospitals and other healthcare facilities will have the capacity and time to restock their supplies and be able to give every patient the care they need. That’s how an 8% mortality rate can be reduced to just 2% or less.
Respiratory valves are far from the only tools hospitals are experiencing shortages with. Ventilators are another in-demand item that’s sorely needed by a lot of facilities. That’s why Gerrit Coetzee, a San Francisco-based design engineer, placed a call on the Hackaday blog for engineers and designers to help design an open-source ventilator for hospitals. Coetzee described the device as “the device that becomes the decider between life and death” and that is an apt description.
Using 3D printing in this way isn’t something new either – 3D printing prosthetics is a more and more wide-spread practice today and even 3D printing personalized pills isn’t out of the question anymore. So, the good news is that the technology is there – now all that’s needed is more people like Gerrit Coetzee and Michele Faini and the collaborations they are establishing.
Faini also pointed that out, saying “I hope that all the people understand that we have to work together [to] stop this pandemic. All of us have to stay safe and have to use our skills to help [those] who need it.”
They aren’t sharing the blueprints for the 3D-printed respiratory valves as of right now, however, because it’s not always safe to print these devices. As explained in this Facebook video, the intricate holes and designs of the devices are difficult to 3D print and they also need to be produced in a clean environment as they are to be used for medical purposes. Faini has also said that their goal isn’t to bypass the original manufacturer but to simply aid with the supply needs of the Brescia region.