Centra's health care system had no formal relationship with the trendy Lynchburg maker space known as Vector Space when Dr. Kevin Knight, an anesthesiologist at Centra, contacted Elise Spontarelli, who owns the company with her husband, Adam, last week.

He wanted to gauge her interest in helping to provide health care workers with personal protective equipment.

“As part of my department's preparations, we were assessing community resources that may be available in the future if we do run short on supplies, especially PPE,” he said. “We’re working on a number of prototype face shields that will be invaluable if Lynchburg experiences the type of COVID infection surge that has been seen in other places.”

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As of Saturday, Virginia had more than 2,400 confirmed cases, including 22 in Lynchburg and the surrounding counties.

Vector Space immediately offered its resources and expertise, he said.

Spontarelli said hospital workers usually wear masks but since those are running low, Vector Space is now 3-D printing face shields, which Spontarelli said provide the wearers additional protection.

“It’s really good to have a purpose,” Spontarelli said. “What we do is so collaborative and we bring people together and we can’t do that right now, which feels so sad to have this empty maker space, so it’s good to know there’s something we can do to help. I’m in a better place knowing that we can be a part of helping this and it’s something to keep us busy. We do have specialized machines that others don’t, and to work for the cause is really great.”

Early last week Vector Space began printing masks and building prototype ventilator parts. Spontarelli has already sent a few prototypes to Centra free of charge and hasn't yet determined how to fund the project if it takes off.

“If they need thousands, we will have to hire people, but if it’s just hundreds, we can do that in house,” she said. “We would probably sell them for minimal costs for $6 or $7 a mask.”

One of the challenges is locating enough clear, impermeable materials to use for the mask, as well as just waiting on the printer to create the product, Spontarelli said.

“3-D printing is really slow; we can print 20 at a time, but it takes 30 hours,” she said.

She said Framatome, James River Day School and Virginia Episcopal School all have 3-D printers and have offered to help.

Once she locates the plastic required, she plans to laser-cut the masks, which takes two minutes.

Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.

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