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Coronavirus: Snorkeling masks for hospitals

Alistair Walsh
April 2, 2020

Such masks are already a success for coronavirus patients in Spain and Italy. Two students are hoping to bring a novel concept to Germany. But they need help.

Jan sporting his ventilator snorkeling mask
Image: AFP/Isinnova

Two German students have developed adaptors that should enable full-face snorkeling masks to be used as emergency breathing masks for COVID-19 patients in Germany.

Cousins Jan Schulte-Austum and Kai Echelmeyer are seeking industry and medical support to test their invention, which expands on a concept already in use in Italy and Spain.

The idea gained traction in Italy, after medical shortages forced doctors to improvise. With speedily designed adaptors, full-face snorkeling masks can attach to hospital's BiPAP machines that then pump pressurized air into masks, making sure patients' lungs don't collapse.

The specially-adapted masks mean doctors can sometimes avoid intubating patients with respiratory problems. With medical supplies in increasingly short supply, the ad-hoc solution can save lives.

The masks cannot be used for the most serious cases, which require a complete ventilator system, but it can be a stop-gap solution.

Read more: Coronavirus governments race to make ventilators 

The method has gathered support in Spain, with authorities in Madrid asking citizens to donate their masks for use in hospitals.

Decathlon have since withdrawn their Easybreath mask from sale in some markets and donated tens of thousands of the masks across Europe. 

Decathlon told DW that its support teams were working with research centers, hospitals and public authorities out of solidarity and responsibility. 

"However, we are not a medical company and cannot guarantee any de facto protection against the virus. Our water sports brand SUBEA (based in France) already offers the best possible technical support to determine whether modifications to the mask need to be implemented. To this end, the plans and technical information from our research and development team have been passed on to the mask." 

It said it was working to centralize the distribution of the masks in Germany, possibly through health authorities and had limited customer purchase of the masks in the Germany to stop resellers.

Student Kai Echelmeyer told DW the newly developed parts were specific to German conditions. Initial designs focus on Decathlon's Easybreath mask and Intersport's Tecnopro mask.

They hope to expand it to different models and to find a way to mass-produce the fittings without the use of slow 3D-printing.

"If there is really an emergency and you need maybe thousands of these, then one should be able to provide this as soon as possible," Echelmeyer said.

Read more: How do ventilators work?

Echelmeyer said the pair are not seeking profit, and want only to help in case things get desperate.

Early tests have proved successful, but the pair are hoping to work with hospitals to test them more thoroughly.

In Belgium, researchers have been working with Brussels' Erasme Hospital and a private firm to adapt the masks for use in Belgian conditions.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, researchers have been adapting facemasks by adding military-grade filters for use by hospital masks in the face of a protective mask shortage.

3D printers tackling the coronavirus

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