NORTH LAWNDALE — The governor has ordered all who leave their homes to wear a protective face covering to slow the spread of coronavirus, yet shortages have made it tough for many folks, including first responders, to get their hands on the necessary masks.
While some residents have turned to their sewing machines to help make masks for those on the front lines, one artist has turned to a more high-tech piece of machinery to supply West Side essential workers with personal protective equipment.
When the School of the Art Institute of Chicago closed in March, Eric Fuertes asked the administration if he could take home some of the 3D printers from the school’s digital fabrication studio that he manages. When it became apparent that first responders were in dire need of PPE, he fired up the 3D printers and developed the face shields from open source designs available online.
“I’m a sculptor, a fabricator, and started integrating digital techniques like 3D printing and laser cutting. So I found that I could use some of the techniques and skills I had to apply that towards assisting some medical professionals,” he said.
Fuertes has been printing and laser-cutting the PPE using spare acrylic donated by SAIC. The face shields are designed with rigid brackets that hold a flexible plastic layer in front of the face for protection.
“The hope is that this creates a barrier that assists in decreasing fluid exposure to the face, and by wearing these the hope is that it can assist in extending the life of an N95 dust mask,” Fuertes said, with the caveat that the masks have not been tested in a medical lab.
He reached out to colleagues at SAIC Homan Square, 906 S. Homan Ave., to check if any West Side community partners needed the face shields. From there, the project joined the Illinois PPE Network and began distributing masks.
Some 460 pieces of 3D-printed PPE were sent to the Ogden District Police Station in North Lawndale. Another 175 were donated to Lawndale Christian Health Center, and 40 were given to the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s COVID response team.
With the success of the project, Fuertes is also making face shields for dialysis centers, dentists, AIDS clinics and other organizations receiving aid through the Illinois PPE Network. He’s gotten requests from as far as Michigan and New Jersey.
In total, Fuentes estimates that he and SAIC have fabricated about 3,000 units of PPE.
But now that much of the material he has been using to print the face shields has been used up, he is partnering with neighborhood mutual aid organizations responding to the public health crisis like North Lawndale Cares to get the materials needed to continue production and distribution of the PPE.
Fuertes needs sheets of quarter-inch extruded acrylic or plexiglass to fabricate the brackets. For the face barriers, he needs 7 to 12-millimeter clear plastic sheets.
“I’ve been using a fair amount of laminate sheets or covers for portfolios or binding,” he said.
Businesses, organizations and individuals with spare acrylic, clear plastic, or laminate sheets can donate the materials to be fabricated into PPE by contacting Fuertes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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