Keeping Health Care Providers Safe During a Pandemic

September 21, 2021

As COVID-19 began to spread around the world in early 2020, researchers from UBC and the Emergency Department at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) began brainstorming new ways to keep healthcare providers safe during the upcoming pandemic.

Supported by a COVID-19 Solutions Grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies as well as funding from Scotiabank, Prof. Zachary Hudson (UBC Chemistry) an expert in polymers and plastics, and his team set out to develop a portable enclosure that could be easily deployed over patients during aerosol-generating medical procedures (AGMPs).

AGMPs are common in emergency departments around the globe, and include procedures like endotracheal intubation and high-flow oxygen delivery. These procedures are used when treating some of the most severe cases of COVID-19, but unfortunately generate substantial amounts of aerosols to which healthcare workers could be exposed.

The team devised a modular enclosure that would be placed over the patient’s head and torso before the procedure, with inlets positioned above the patient to accommodate the healthcare workers’ arms and instruments. The transparent enclosure could then be supplemented with a plastic tarp to cover the patient’s body, with the application of negative pressure to draw any harmful aerosols away.

After testing the prototype, the team connected with another group of researchers at UBC and VGH working on a similar problem. Led by Prof. Curtis Berlinguette (UBC Chemistry, CHBE, SBQMI), this group was developing a simpler design that would be suitable for mass production, eventually nicknamed the ‘covidbox.’

The two teams immediately began working together, making their designs freely available on the web as well as the open-access journal repositories. The concepts have since been tested by healthcare workers in the United States, Mexico, Poland, and in several hospitals across Canada.

While significant work remains to translate the project into clinical practise, Hudson’s team has since begun collaborating with Steven Rogak (UBC Mechanical Engineering) to study how aerosols circulate in hospital emergency rooms more generally. They hope this work will lead to a greater understanding of how healthcare workers should be protected while dealing with aerosolized infectious diseases.

“We’re very grateful to the Peter Wall Institute and Scotiabank for creating these rapid-response programs to help us combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Hudson.