By George Whitesides, CEO Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company
As we all continue to feel the direct impact of COVID-19 in our day-to-day lives, I’ve been inspired by the teamwork shown in the Antelope Valley (AV) of California to respond to the challenge of COVID-19. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we share knowledge, skills and collaborate.
A few weeks ago, doctors at the Antelope Valley Hospital (AVH) approached local aerospace engineers to work on fast solutions to the problems of providing care to COVID-19 patients. In response, engineers and technicians from our team at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC) joined with experts from the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Antelope Valley College and the City of Lancaster to assemble a COVID task force. The group’s aim has been to help hospitals in this region manage the patient surge that is increasing demands on PPE and breathing assistance mechanisms and risking doctor and nurse health.
Deputy Mayor Dr. Lawrence Stock, an Emergency Medicine Physician and Vice-Chairman of the Emergency Department and Chair of the Bioethics Committee at AVH said: “Early into the pandemic, AVH recognized the potential strain that COVID-19 could impose on our local medical resources. With the support of the team, what began as a conversation on 3D printing small connectors and parts, morphed into not only securing resources in high demand but also working prototypes for critical items within the hospital. It is mind-boggling. We are grateful and know together we can overcome this pandemic”.
After several weeks of daily calls, spanning a growing team of talented folks from inside the AV as well as beyond, the team has produced results in several areas.
Perhaps most important, they’ve designed and built several prototype patient oxygen hoods, which allow oxygen rich pressure to support those admitted with COVID-19 – opening up the alveoli in the lungs, and helping to delay or prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) from developing. By mitigating ARDS, we hope this will then reduce the subsequent need for ventilator support.
The team has also designed and built two designs for protective enclosures to reduce risk for health workers during intubation procedures, as well as a design for an antechamber for those workers to don and doff protective clothing. The Intubation Shield is a transparent enclosure that fits over the patient’s head with holes to enable a doctor to reach in and perform the difficult Intubation process with less exposure to COVID-19.
The team is helping local hospitals set up a distributed oxygen delivery system for a local field hospital, to be ready for a potential surge in patients.
Finally, the procurement teams of industry and the city are serving as an extra set of arms to rapidly source additional PPE and supplies for the hospitals, whether that be masks, fingertip oximeters, gowns or respirators.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris has been at the forefront of the preparation efforts, working with partners throughout the AV. “With the impact of COVID-19 evolving daily, it became increasingly important to me to partner together to meet the needs of our community during this challenging time. The Antelope Valley has always been the heart of the Aerospace Valley. With a long history of changing the world, it is almost expected, and this time of crisis is no exception. This talented team has truly come together and created devices that will save lives. We are the example. I am incredibly proud of the ingenuity of this team and thank everyone involved.”
So how has the team worked so far, and what lessons can we share with other communities as they organize to handle local challenges? Most of all, we’ve emphasized speed of response, working with existing resources and relationships where we can, inventing where necessary, and trying to stay attuned to what the caregivers need most now.
For example, for the oxygen hoods, NASA Armstrong and TSC engineers have designed and built several prototypes, and already delivered 50 working hoods to the hospital. These prototypes are now being tested for comfort, ease of use and functionality. We hope they will serve as pathfinders for other communities who see the therapeutic benefits of non-invasive oxygen therapy and who may also have shortages of ventilators.
Along the way, we identified the promising capacity of a small company in Texas called Sea-Long, that was already manufacturing hyperbaric oxygen hoods. Working to increase capacity wherever it could be found, we worked to increase their production in parallel by financing more manufacturing machines and sending down a team of manufacturing experts to help increase their production flow. That team, led by Byron Henning, one of our top engineers at TSC, is now on-site to help advise on the production ramp up of a non-invasive ventilation hood based on their Sea-Long Hyperbaric Product.
As we continue all these efforts, our objective remains to create hoods that can be manufactured quickly, allow for mass production, and can be built at a low cost. We hope this technology, which has been widely used in Italy, will continue to be helpful over the coming weeks and months.
As we have proceeded, we’ve tried to help on challenges as they have come up. For example, the NASA team has been designing a safe oxygen distribution system that technicians will assemble at the local field hospital. In addition, engineers and fabrication technicians are developing system prototypes such as mobile station barrier for patient care PPE (a protective cart) and an easy-to-assemble chamber as an enclosed staging room prior to entering a contaminated area.
David Voracek is the lead NASA engineer for the AV Task Force, and the chief technologist for NASA Armstrong. He’s worked with great center talent, like engineer Mike Buttigieg, to rapidly develop several prototypes such as the hoods. “We’ve looked across our Center’s expertise in innovation, engineering, design, and fabrication of unique systems, to bring NASA knowledge and people together to collaborate on solving the needs and challenges brought about by the COVID-19 situation.”
In these unprecedented times, our thanks continue to go to every member of this talented and growing team, who are working on, testing, or manufacturing these much-needed pieces of equipment. Most of all, we are thankful for the brave caregivers in our hospitals, clinics and labs who are on the front lines of this generational challenge. I continue to believe that human ingenuity, toughness, and community resilience will beat COVID-19 – and couldn’t be prouder of this team, at such a difficult time.