As critical supplies grew scarce during early days of pandemic, UCLA Health and campus colleagues created their own

Protective eye wear and masks were made using 3D-printing technology

Photo: Shaunte Walton is system director for Clinical Epidemiology & Infection Prevention at UCLA Health. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA Health needed more masks, testing supplies and hand sanitizer than the overwhelmed global supply chain could provide.

So infectious disease leaders, in collaboration with their biomedical engineering colleagues on campus, created their own pipeline, designing and producing what they needed with 3D printing.

Shaunté C. Walton, MS, CIC, system director of Clinical Epidemiology & Infection Prevention at UCLA Health, said UCLA quickly responded to unexpected needs with innovation that will remain useful for future challenges.

“For us, the supply chain crisis really prompted us to think about the opportunities we can develop as an organization and how we partner with the experts that we have on campus to create things that keep our employees and patients safe,” Walton said.

Supply shortage, supply solution

In the spring of 2020, hospitals across the country scrambled to acquire enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for their staff, as demand surged and the coronavirus disrupted manufacturing and delivery.

Walton said unlike smaller, non-academic health systems, UCLA Health had access to biomedical engineers and their 3D printing labs on campus. Teams quickly set out to design, test and manufacture protective eye wear for employees.

“When supplies started to become scarce, we jumped right on getting raw materials to see if we could design our own products in house,” she said.

By the end of March, UCLA had begun printing plastic surgical face shields and eye shields at the UCLA Innovation Lab housed at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, for less than $1 apiece for materials.

UCLA Biodesign Fellows mobilized the entire face shield assembly. Walton said UCLA printed more than 20,000 U Shields that were deployed to front-line workers exposed to aerosols while providing patient care. UCLA also created a smaller eye shield for lower-risk situations.

"Swabs were definitely on the list of those items that we were depleting very quickly, and it was going to be very difficult to get swabs in at the rate we were doing testing."

shaunte walton, ms, cic

“Several iterations of products were created,” Walton said. “We could customize it to fit the needs of our employees.”

UCLA also developed 3D-printed plastic nasal swabs for administering COVID-19 tests to employees and patients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the product, ensuring that UCLA could meet demand for testing and prevent spread of illness.

Again, UCLA Biodesign Fellows were involved, printing and testing the swabs.

“Swabs were definitely on the list of those items that we were depleting very quickly, and it was going to be very difficult to get swabs in at the rate we were doing testing,” Walton said. “That was an amazing innovation done here at UCLA, that we were able to keep at the forefront of identifying those positive cases. If we didn’t have that supplemental product, it would have been really challenging to continue the necessary testing.”

Another concern was maintaining proper hand hygiene due to a shortage of hand sanitizer, which can be used more rapidly and reliably than soap and water in certain situations.

“Hand hygiene is one of the fundamentals that we have to perform in order to provide safety for all,” Walton said. “Thinking about running out of the product you need to keep yourself safe was a very scary thought.”

UCLA was able to source from an unconventional supplier, turning to a cosmetics company to produce hand sanitizer that met FDA specifications.

As the supply chain for medical products improved, UCLA has gone back to using outside vendors, which is most efficient. However, Walton said she was honored to be a part of a team that ensured supplies were available without disruption.

“We did not have a gap in providing essential products for our staff and patients,” she said. “We as an institution did really well during the pandemic where other organizations struggled to keep up with demand.”

Ideas for the future

Walton said UCLA Health has ideas for other innovations that would address ongoing pandemic concerns.

For instance, UCLA suspended a volunteer-staffed effort to track hand-washing compliance among health care workers to reduce potential COVID exposure to the volunteers. But the collected data is still important, so Walton said UCLA is working to trial an electronic system that would not rely on human observation.

“We were concerned about the risk,” Walton said. “There’s definitely an opportunity to figure out a sustainable way to capture hand hygiene data.”

Additionally, Walton said although UCLA’s hospitals require visitors to show proof of vaccination or a negative test, sometimes people show up without a test result.

She said just as some airports offer on-site rapid testing, UCLA could potentially provide the same service if feasible so that visitors are able to support their hospitalized loved ones right away.

Walton said she and her colleagues across disciplines at UCLA have forged partnerships that will outlast the pandemic, as they seek other novel solutions.

“It really taught us that we needed to start thinking about back-up plans for emergency situations, especially when it comes to infectious disease,” Walton said.

Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.