Bay Area makers offer grassroots help to hospitals

Seeing severe protective equipment shortage, scientist enlists others to help create face shields for health care workers

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Courtesy of Santani Teng

Bay Area scientist Santani Teng makes a delivery of face shields to the Summit Emergency Department in Oakland. Teng is leading a grassroots effort in the Bay Area to get face shields to hospital workers.

Elizabeth Posey, Co-Editor-in-Chief

When he’s not sheltering in place, Bay Area scientist Santani Teng studies how blind people see and feel the world around them at

Dr. Yenting Chen of Summit ER tries on the National Institutes of Health-approved face shield created by Santani Teng’s team of builders. Thirty were delivered on Monday.

the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco. 

In the past week, he’s had a more urgent calling that’s taken him out of the safety of his home: helping in his way meet the critical global shortage of protective hospital equipment that is putting hospital workers at risk.

Armed with a small team equipped with 3D printers, donations from friends and supplies, Teng has recruited a grassroots group to make and deliver homemade face shields for health care workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Teng, who grew up in Milpitas, said he was called into action by his physician friends describing how they are putting themselves at risk by reusing their hospital equipment, including face shields and masks.

“I don’t want them to be overwhelmed,” he said. “I don’t want them to get sick.”

He described a text message from a friend saying he had used his face shield for an entire eight hour shift and until “it literally just disintegrated” on him.

The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to overwhelm hospitals across the United States that are struggling to supply their employees with personal protective equipment, which includes vital N95 masks and gloves. The Center for Disease Control reports that both manufacturers and distributors of PPE are facing challenges related to increased demand and high volume orders.

Teng is joined by countless scientists and tinkerers like him around the world racing to get PPEs to hospitals and building equipment to meet worker demands. 

To make the National Institutes of Health-approved masks, Teng relied on his MIT alumni network, who have already been making such protective equipment for Boston’s hospitals. He didn’t see a similar movement in the Bay Area, and so two weeks ago he put out a call on Facebook. A few dozen replied to help.

“There are solutions out there already,” he said. “I don’t see a similar thing happening here, and that seemed like a good opportunity to try to make something happen.”

The current shortage, caused by a strain to the PPE supply chain, is causing major deficits in hospitals that are treating patients with the virus, a source of frustration for Teng.

“I’m still surprised that anything we’re doing is either necessary or useful,” said Teng, “But I’m super-gratified.”

To build the face shields, he used models that were created and tested by Budmen, a company that designs and manufactures 3D printers. Making the face shields requires a 3D print of the polycarbonate sheet covering the face, elastic bands to secure it.

“We don’t have a very developed testing pipeline,” said Teng. “The basic fact of this working is something we’re placing our trust in having already happened.”

Massachusetts General Hospital, who were among the first to receive this model of face protection, confirm that the basic features of the design work as intended. Teng has already gained positive feedback from healthcare professionals using the model he produced. Though the builds are not FDA-approved, adequate protection is better than no protection.

“Nobody from us nor the company is claiming this as a medical device,” he said. “We rely on physicians in the field for feedback and assertions on it.”

Teng and his network of makers produce parts in an assembly line style, each contributor with differing roles and sequences. Some use their 3D printers to print certain components, some are donating supplies like sheeting and elastic bands (although Teng notes that there is a current shortage of elastic bands that is slowing the production pace).

Simple, “informal” tests are used when the shields are completed; spraying disinfectant directly to the mask, shaking or knocking the design while on the head or turning in different directions to make sure it stays secure in a working environment are a few examples.

Teng says his group is currently resourced to make about 1,000 face shields, but he doesn’t have plans to stop. He has already shipped 30 of them to the Summit Campus Emergency Department.

“Essentially right now it’s until we can’t do it anymore or if someone tells us to stop,” Teng said.

Unless enough shipments of protective equipment are sent to the area to keep workers safe or their efforts run out of the necessary materials needed to produce their shields, Teng says he will continue the supply.

“It’s a personal mission for me because for something like coronavirus, there is no difference between the personal and the social,” said Teng.