UConn Turning Conventional Masks into N95 Equivalents

Featured Health Tech Wearable Tech

One of the questions that’s been asked repeatedly is, how effective are conventional facemasks against COVID-19?  While there are varying opinions as to exactly how effective they are, general consensus is, while they may be slightly effective for the wearer, they are more effective for inhibiting the spread of the virus.  Recent reports, though, claim standard masks can reduce risk of infection for wearers by 65%.

That’s still not as good as National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved N95 respirators that are much more tight-fitting and filter out at least 95% of large and small airborne particles and have little leakage when properly fitted.

N95 respirators continue to be in high demand, which certainly isn’t going to be reduced anytime soon, given the explosive growth of new cases the U.S. has seen in the past few weeks.  A better mask could help, if people would be smarter about wearing them.

The University of Connecticut, however, is looking to solve the problem with custom-fit mask frames that could make conventional masks almost as effective as N95 masks.  Part of UCONN Health, the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering had started work in April on a way to create custom-fit mask frames and exoskeletons that would enhance the protective capabilities of “regular” masks and bring them closer to N95 respirators.  The process uses a combination of facial recognition software and 3D printing – the latter is done at a machine shop at UCONN’s School of Engineering.

Now, a mere six weeks after announcing its first successful production model, UCONN has struck a deal with startup Connecticut Biotech for production, marketing, and distribution of the mask frames. 

The facial recognition software helps create the specs for each custom-fit mask frame, which fit over conventional masks to create tight seals and bring them to near-N95 protective levels.  What’s incredible is the process requires customers to submit only a front and side photo taken with any camera phone.  From there, the facial recognition tech takes over and creates the 3D model for printing, which will provide a tight fit for any mask based on the wearer’s facial contours.

Expected to be available later this year, the masks will be available for order under the Secure Fit brand directly through Connecticut Biotech.  Retail cost is expected to be about $40.  Not a bad price to pay for health.

This isn’t the first PPE effort to come from UConn.  The mask frame project presumably got its start from Dr. Chris Wiles, a first-year anesthesiology resident, who developed a non-customized version and started printing them on his home 3D printer.  His designs were used to provide appropriate PPE for UConn Health staff when their N95 supply ran out. 

In addition, Dr. Sergio Velasco, assistant professor and program director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) residency program, used a 3D printer to make face shields for dental residents so they could safely treat emergency patients.