When Kentez Craig was a teenager, he was riding in the car with his father one day when they came upon a vehicle on fire along the side of the road. Craig’s dad, a paramedic, pulled the car to a stop and rushed out to help.
It was the kind of act that didn’t surprise Craig. He grew up listening to his parents, both paramedics, tell stories of responding to burning buildings and crushed cars. They instilled in him the importance of serving one’s community and never panicking in a crisis.
Seven years later, Craig’s dad, Kenneth, is working as an emergency room paramedic, now on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis in Georgia. Craig is a graduate student at Georgia Tech’s school of mechanical engineering.
Watching the pandemic ravage Atlanta, Craig said his parents’ devotion to public service inspired him to take action. Together with a small team of Georgia Tech faculty and students, he has spent the past two months working to design and build critical protective gear and medical equipment to help first responders battle COVID-19.
“I saw nothing better I could do to give back to people like my mom, my dad — who have been working in emergency services — and first responders on the real front lines of this,” Craig told NBC News.
Over the past few weeks, Craig’s team has provided thousands of face shields to medical facilities across the country, as well as roughly 200 intubation boxes, a protective barrier that shields health care workers from respiratory droplets when intubating patients, to Atlanta-area hospitals. And the face shield design they created has been used to produce nearly 2 million of them.
“If I had fireworks, I would have set them off,” said Kari Love, program director for infection prevention at Emory Healthcare, recalling its first delivery of face shields created at Georgia Tech. “It was an amazing feeling to see the smiles on the faces of the Emory staff who were receiving them.”
The project began in mid-March as Atlanta was becoming a COVID-19 hot spot. An email circulated around Georgia Tech faculty members: What could they do to help?
Chris Saldana, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, connected with an Emory Healthcare staff member through a mutual colleague, and they discussed what personal protective equipment the hospital needed. The most pressing need: face shields, plastic coverings that protect health care workers from respiratory droplets and extend the life of N95 masks.
“When we were talking with health care workers, we realized that the need was in the order of millions, and the need was in the order of weeks, if not days,” Saldana said.
After talking with Love and other health care professionals, Saldana gathered a team of Georgia Tech faculty members and student volunteers to get to work on a design for a face shield that could be built quickly but also easily mass produced to help with the national supply.
“Being a university, we’re very nimble. We can jump on the machines fairly quickly and actually produce components,” Saldana said.
Georgia Tech is home to one of the most robust student-run engineering makerspaces in the country, the Flowers Invention Studio, which Craig helps run during the school year. When Craig heard Saldana was looking to open the studio to build face shields, he immediately emailed Saldana that he wanted to be involved.
Together, over the course of three days, the team worked around the clock to produce a face shield using a laser cutter and water jet cutter. Craig said the days were long but the team’s camaraderie powered them through.
“It was wild,” Craig said. “We would get there at 7 or 8 in the morning, then look up and it was 5 p.m. You would lose track of time.”
Craig, who specializes in water jet machining, said the process is much faster than 3D printing, which some other universities had been using to create face shields.
“Because of the capability we have, we were able to crank out a lot more early on and get them into the hands of health care providers to make sure we got their feedback,” Craig said.
They worked closely with local health care workers at Emory University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to create a design that was comfortable, easy to clean and fully protective. A nonprofit affiliated with Georgia Tech, the Global Center for Medical Innovation, also provided input to ensure the design was scalable to mass manufacture.
Within one week, the team had built more than 5,000 face shields and personally delivered them to hospitals across Atlanta.
Dr. Jeremy Collins, executive vice chair of anesthesiology at Emory, said the face shields have been “huge” in protecting his colleagues as they treat people with the coronavirus.
“At the start of the pandemic, there was quite a lot of fear and concern that, as anesthesiologists, we were putting our heads into the lion’s mouth because we were the closest to the danger,” Collins said. “We quickly realized we needed to have more coverage on our faces.”
Collins said the unique face shield design is not only fully protective, but also comfortable to wear and durable enough to sustain several weeks of use and rounds of disinfectant.
Since the first deliveries to Atlanta-area hospitals, Georgia Tech’s unique design has taken off.
In April, after the Food and Drug Administration released an emergency use authorization for the mass production of face shields, the school partnered with manufacturer Siemens to begin mass producing its design. To date, Siemens has supplied the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency with 100,000 face shields to distribute across the state.
GCMI passed the design on to other manufacturers — including Delta, ExxonMobil and Kia Motors — that are now helping produce the shields and distribute them across the country. Large corporations, including Coca-Cola, have donated supplies to manufacture the shields.
Georgia Tech has also posted the design on its rapid response website for open use. Since April 13, the designs have been downloaded roughly 1,400 times, the school said. Saldana estimates there have now been almost 1.8 million face shields delivered to health care workers in the past few weeks.
Craig’s work hasn’t stopped with the face shield. Over the past two months, he’s been involved with multiple COVID-19 projects at Georgia Tech, including an intubation box and ventilator.
Working again with Saldana, Craig helped create a foldable intubation chamber, a clear barrier device that protects health care workers from respiratory droplets while intubating critically ill people who have the coronavirus. More than 100 of the devices have been shipped to Emory University Hospital. Other Atlanta-area hospitals say they are also considering using the boxes, which received FDA emergency use authorization at the end of April.
Collaborating with another Georgia Tech faculty member, Shannon Yee, Craig also created a low-cost, portable emergency ventilator that the team hopes will be a solution for developing countries that are responding to COVID-19.
“Kentez has been a huge asset for all our efforts,” Saldana said. “He’s one of the most capable in this space. He’s someone you can rely on and has threaded every project that has come out of the Flowers Studio.”
Craig said seeing his work make an impact for health care providers has been “an honor.”
“They’re the silent heroes. They’re looked up to, but I feel like they don’t often get the support they deserve,” Craig said. “If I can make their day a little bit better and a little bit safer, I’m grateful for the opportunity to do such a thing.”
Craig’s parents, Jackie and Kenneth, say they couldn’t be prouder of their son.
“It brings me to tears, joyful tears,” said Jackie, who worked as a paramedic for 27 years. “Whatever joy he’s brought us is far greater than we could have ever given him.”
Kenneth, who currently works as a paramedic at Eastside Medical Center, said he’s “ecstatic” to see his son giving back to the community.
“Words can’t express how proud I am,” Kenneth said. “It makes me feel wonderful because he’s saving my colleagues in the field.”
Craig, who will be pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering next year, said the experience of using his passion for engineering to honor his parents was incredibly rewarding.
“It makes you feel honored and like I’m doing something important and worthwhile,” Craig said. “I look forward to any work we get to do in the future, getting back to my email and figuring out what’s next.”