KEARNEY – There are five 3D printers inside Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer’s research lab at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Typically, the associate chemistry professor and her students are using this equipment to create devices that concentrate DNA for genome sequencing and analysis.
The past month, though, has been anything but typical.
Instead of working in the lab, UNK students are finishing the semester through remote learning in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and Kounovsky-Shafer is teaching courses from her Kearney home.
Those 3D printers also have a role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Three of them, now located in Kounovsky-Shafer’s basement, are being used to produce the personal protective equipment health care workers and emergency responders desperately need.
“You read the stories about how this is affecting essential personnel and health care workers,” said Kounovsky-Shafer, whose sister is a nurse in Rapid City, South Dakota. “I have the tools to help, so I need to help.”
Over the past three weeks, Kounovsky-Shafer has created parts for more than 150 face shields sent to locations across the state.
She started by partnering with a team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that was producing face shields for the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Bryan Health, then joined a volunteer effort in central Nebraska.
Tri-Cities COVID-19 PPE is a group of volunteers in the Kearney-Hastings-Grand Island area who are making medical equipment for hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and first responders. The project was launched March 27 by members of the Amateur Radio Association of Nebraska and has since grown to include about 30 individuals, as well as businesses, schools, public libraries, Central District Health Department and emergency management offices.
“There were no local sources for this protective gear when we started, and there still is a critical shortage of it now,” said Allen Harpham, president and CEO of Flatwater Technologies in Hastings and a founding member of Tri-Cities COVID-19 PPE.
In the basement of her Kearney home, Kounovsky-Shafer 3D-prints plastic headpieces that attach to the clear shields produced by other members of the group. There are volunteers who assemble the face shields, and others who package, transport and deliver the equipment to organizations throughout the Tri-Cities area.
Harpham said the response from volunteers has been “incredible.”
Tri-Cities COVID-19 PPE has received requests for more than 3,600 face shields, delivering 1,600 so far. This includes an eventual stockpile of 400 shields for Adams, Hall and Buffalo counties. The group is also making 500 nasal swabs for Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, several dozen specialty face shields for dentists that will be shipped to Indiana and “ear savers,” a thin, flexible piece of plastic that goes on the back of the head and attaches to face mask straps. These devices ensure medical masks fit properly and make them more comfortable by reducing ear irritation.
Individually, Kounovsky-Shafer has produced about 200 ear savers for a care facility in Fairbury and Veterans Affairs hospital near Rapid City.
During a time of need, she said it’s important for people to “step up and do what’s right.”
Plus, the volunteer work has been a fun activity for her 9-year-old daughter Zia.
“The nice thing is the 3D-printing actually keeps her fairly occupied. She loves running downstairs, taking off the prints and helping out. It’s great,” said Kounovsky-Shafer, who is married to UNK head women’s tennis coach Scott Shafer. The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter, Simona.
In addition to Kounovsky-Shafer, members of the Tri-Cities COVID-19 PPE group include UNK graduate Maddie Forsman and Jean Mandernach, an adjunct faculty member in UNK’s Department of Psychology. Using a laser cutter, Mandernach has made about 1,800 face shields for the Tri-Cities group and approximately 4,000 “comfort clips” for face masks she distributed outside the group.
Carla Kegley-Owen’s father was 87 years old when he passed away last year.
As she sews face mask after face mask in her rural Kearney home, that’s the population she’s thinking about – those who are at the highest risk of developing a severe illness from COVID-19.
“For that generation, the coronavirus is hitting them hard. Anything I can do to help protect them, I want to do,” said Kegley-Owen, a senior lecturer in UNK’s Department of Chemistry.
Kegley-Owen started making cloth face masks March 21 after seeing a request for these items on social media. Since then, she’s completed more than 220 using her personal “stash” of material and elastic her husband buys. Her 17-year-old daughter Sydney, a quilting partner over the past five years, is also lending a hand.
So far, they’ve used 19 yards of fabric, 88 yards of elastic and approximately 500 yards of thread.
“As people request them, I just keep making more,” Kegley-Owen said.
Her face masks have been donated to the Brookestone Gardens senior living facility, Central Nebraska Veterans Home and CHI Health Good Samaritan in Kearney, as well as a care facility in Fairbury and hospital in Idaho.