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NC State, Blue Cross NC-led group to deliver 200,000 masks a month to health care workers

Employing textile technology created at N.C. State University, a collaboration of health care and manufacturing concerns says it can now make and distribute up to 200,000 protective masks a month.

The group, called Made in NC, will distribute the N95 masks to health care and essential workers to ensure a ready supply of personal protective equipment, as the fight against COVID-19 continues into its seventh month.

Made in NC includes the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, along with UNC Health, NC State’s Nonwovens Institute and Freudenberg Performance Materials.

To accomplish its goal:

  • Blue Cross NC invested $450,000 to buy two mask molding machines and the materials used for the manufacturing. The two machines could make two million masks a year.
  • NC State’s Nonwovens Institute developed a new cost-efficient material that needs fewer filtration layers.
  • UNC Health will perform tests to ensure the masks meet health standards
  • Freudenberg is providing manufacturing.
  • The NC Medical Society and NC Healthcare Association Strategic Partners is helping purchase and distribute the masks.

“(W)e are proud to be part of this initiative to ensure that vital (personal protection equipment) remains available to frontline health care workers in the continued fight against COVID-19,” Blue Cross NC CEO Tunde Sotunde said in a statement. “…We are all working together toward a common goal of protecting those who continue to protect the people and communities across our state.”

The mask production comes after North Carolina surpassed more than 200,000 cases of COVID-19 last week, The N&O reported. While it took North Carolina around four and a half months to reach 100,000 cases, it took just an additional two months to reach 200,000, after a surge in cases this summer that led to some hospitals nearly reaching capacities.

N95 masks, also known as the N95 respirators, have become one of the most popular forms of protective equipment in hospitals. The mask offers more protection than a standard surgical mask, and it prevents at least 95% of airborne particles from entering the wearer’s mouth and nose, if worn properly.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when supply chains were at their most stretched, hospitals were desperate for N95 masks and were stockpiling them. Duke University, one of the larger medical institutions in the state, even developed a process to clean used masks so that they could be used again, The News & Observer reported.

N95 masks generally consist of a combination of two layers of nonwoven fabric, which are materials bonded together through means other than knitting or weaving. The nonwoven material is able to act as a filtration system, capturing tiny particles, like coronaviruses or bacteria.

But with demand straining supplies, NC State researchers looked for a way to create these masks with less fabric, while still maintaining their effectiveness.

Behnam Pourdeyhimi, executive director of the Nonwovens Institute, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, his staff has worked “tirelessly five, six days a week” to develop new materials that could work effectively against the virus.

The Nonwovens Institute has shipped some of the material off to other companies to use, but previously it wasn’t able to manufacture them at its facility on the Centennial Campus. The investment from Blue Cross NC to buy two mask-making machines from China now allows it to do just that.

The partnerships should allow for a more consistent and affordable source of protective equipment for hospitals in the state.

“I don’t think there’s any other university that could do what we have done,” Pourdeyhimi said. “It really speaks to what we do on Centennial Campus to go ahead and do this.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

Original Article Source: News and Observer