Houston engineers design and produce masks for area hospitals during PPE shortage

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Going local has become a catch phrase for buying community-sourced products, but for the Memorial Hermann Hospital, it means addressing one of the challenges during this COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have plenty of supply for personal protective equipment for our medical personnel, but we're using a lot of it," said Memorial Hermann's Chief Physician Executive Dr. Jamie McCarthy. "We're watching other parts of the country that are struggling with supply and the supply chain challenged. We're looking at creative solutions so we don't get into that situation here."

McCarthy told his brother-in-law about his concerns. The next day he was referred to a small non-profit on Houston's East End.

TxRx Lab is a collective of engineers, scientists and innovators. Founder, Roland Von Kurnatowski, had been watching the news about hospitals inundated with COVID-19 cases, and not enough protective gear for healthcare workers.

"They (Memorial Hermann) called me on Thursday night. We had already been looking at this problem, and I thought about it. Started the first 50 units of production Saturday and delivered 400 visors today," he said.

The visors are the plastic shields medical staff use to protect their faces, especially when treated patients who may have the virus.

The TxRx lab is now a round-the-clock operation, with rows of laser cutters producing the components for the visors.

Prototypes were delivered to the hospital Friday, tested and reviewed by doctors and nurses, who gave them their stamp of approval.

"We're in an industrial area," Kurnatowski said of his lab. "We have the oil and energy industry, but we're able to be more nimble than a large manufacturer. We think it's time to community source it, because the manufacturers are going to take time, and that's exactly what we don't have right now."

He said the group has designed surgical face masks, with removable filters beneath the cloth mask, which can be washed, and the filter replaced. "We also have 300 seamstresses in Houston on standby, ready to make surgical gowns for medical personnel."

The one thing required is funding to buy the materials. "A neighbor saw what we were doing this week, and set up a Go Fund Me account." In just over a day, it had met its $50,000 goal, which was used to pay for the Mylar plastic used in the visors.

Dr. McCarthy expects TxRx will become a supplier for not only Memorial Hermann, but eventually for other hospitals in the medical center, as well as smaller hospitals in small towns which would not have to compete with bigger institutions to get needed supplies.

"This is a spectacular opportunity to leverage local ingenuity, local machining , and industrial capabilities, and put manufacturing back into Houston's backyard, and they can help keep Houston's healthcare structure functioning for all the people we know who are going to need our help," he said.

Kurnotowski agrees. "It's a blueprint for the future, after we get past this. We find a way to keep local manufacturers still engaged in these activities so that when we have a crisis like this, we can pivot rapidly."

Follow Deborah Wrigley on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright © 2020 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.