U of T students make masks for hospital training purposes, freeing up supplies of the real thing

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University of Toronto medical students are making hundreds of masks to be used by health-care workers in training at local hospitals, freeing up the use of personal protective equipment for front-line workers.

Calandra Li, a first-year student in the Faculty of Medicine’s MD program, is working with more than 25 medical students on the initiative, which has already provided about 500 masks to three hospitals for training purposes.

“We’re doing this because there is a need with the growing cases in our community,” Li says. “Personal protective equipment and other resources are becoming sparse and we know that, through training, masks are used and wasted and thrown away – so this seems like a unique and creative way to help our community, and mitigate that loss a bit.” 

Li came up with the idea after hearing about a similar initiative taking place at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. She said the group of volunteers from U of T is aiming to manufacture about 2,500 masks by the end of April.

Ten Toronto-area hospitals have told Li and her team that they would like the masks to give to their employees for training, and three of those hospitals have already received deliveries from the students.

“These masks aren’t meant to replace real N95 masks in the hospital, but rather, they mimic a real mask so that health-care professionals can practice how to put them on and take them off safely,” says Li, who is the incoming president of the Faculty of Medicine’s Medical Society.

She says the initiative was a way for medical students to help while they are doing online learning at home. At this point, all in-hospital learning for pre-licensure students has been suspended in light of COVID-19.

“I know that every medical student who is at home wants to be mobilized during this difficult time. I know that I feel that way,” says Li.

“We want to help the hospital communities that have taught us so much already, and provide them with any support that we can to lessen their burden.”

There are six team leads for the project who are spread out across the city.

To minimize person-to-person contact, the team lead is the sole person who picks up masks from the students manufacturing them and then drops them off at the hospital.

Students have been using their own funds to support the initiative so far, but are seeking financial support from other sources, including grants, for future production.

“We are using simple shop towels and braided elastics, as well as staples,” says Li. The biggest production challenge has been finding a source of braided elastics, which are in short supply, says Li.

“That’s a bit of a limiting factor but we’re trying our best with what we have,” says Li, adding that the project has been designed to have a limited number of volunteers producing masks for safety reasons.

“This is a student-led initiative and it’s student volunteers and student leaders who are involved. We screened all of our volunteers to ensure that they haven’t travelled in the last 14 days and they are not currently self-isolating or living with anyone who is self-isolating due to a positive contact or positive case,” she says. “We also are ensuring that each volunteer is not volunteering in a front-line position – like as a hospital screener or volunteer.”

The group is also working with the relevant health authorities, she says.

“All of our leads who are delivering masks to hospital sites have coordinated with occupational safety and health at each hospital site.”