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Science and Innovations

Gore Turns Surplus Military Fabrics Into Personal Protection Equipment


Gore is a materials science company in Flagstaff known for its performance fabrics especially designed for the military and firefighters. Now the company is working on filling the widespread shortage of personal protection equipment for health care workers caused by the coronavirus pandemic. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with biomedical engineer Mike Vonesh about how Gore researchers are finding creative ways to manufacture and donate thousands of medical masks and isolation gowns.

So one of the things you’re doing I understand is you’re 3D printing masks, how does that work?

We’re actually doing a lot of things, one of them is 3D printing masks and tapping into what I call the Maker community, which are people who have 3D printers and are distributed all across the country who literally print plans that enable them to create respirator masks, that when combined with filtration material, provide a means of providing respiratory protection. In addition to that, we’re also locally doing a lot of work with creating face shields… These are clear plastic shields with a neck cover that isolates the health care provider’s face from anything it might encounter and adds another layer of protection.

Tell me about the materials you’re using for the isolation gowns.

Gore is a well-known high tech garment fabrics manufacturer…. And we have surplus materials in our inventory of these laminated fabrics which were originally designed to meet military specifications… And what we realized is that our materials that are high tech would work awesome in this application and if treated properly they could be, not disposable, but per the hospital’s laundering procedures be reused, and therefore amplified, have a bigger effect than just manufacturing a single garment.

Who was your collaborator on that project, the people who sewed the gowns together?

It’s a nonprofit down in Tempe, Arizona by the name of Arizona Fashion Source. It’s a really interesting story, because they’ve gone from designing dresses to designing a different type of gown, an isolation gown. They’ve gotten FDA registration and certification to do that. What we’ve been able to do is provide them the materials with these really bold camouflage patterns on them, which they’ve then converted into protective outerwear for health care workers….They’ve being divvied up, some of them are going to Flagstaff Medical Center, some of them are headed out to Tuba City and eastern regions of the Navajo reservation. All told, that collaboration will generate somewhere around 4500 garments, and nationally we’ll have somewhere about ten times that, about 45,000 fancy camo-patterned isolation gowns, again, with the intent of trying to do what we can to help in this crisis.

I’m wondering if you have a sense for how the community is responding to those donations and how our health care workers are coping with the situation?

We certainly get the feedback that we’re making a difference and that’s really rewarding. Personally what’s struck me the most is that, in addition to helping fill this shortfall, in a very real way we are providing hope. The understanding that you can influence someone’s life not only in a material way but in a way that connects to their emotions and their outlook is maybe what’s really the most powerful.

Mike Vonesh, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

You’re welcome.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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