With the onset of COVID-19, health care systems across the country began
assessing readiness in the event of a surge of COVID-19 patients. Catawba
Valley Health System (CVHS) in Catawba County, North Carolina, was no
The CVHS Director of Emergency Management & Environmental Compliance,
Mike Helton, reviewed the hospital’s reserve inventory of personal
protective equipment (PPE), which included a back-up supply of Powered
Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs). PAPRs are used by healthcare staff
who cannot be properly fitted with the standard N-95 mask when caring
for patients with respiratory illness.
PAPRs work by blowing purified air through a hose that connects from the
blower to a hood worn over the entire head. Helton found that 20 of the
hospital’s reserve PAPRs needed new hoses. After a nationwide supply
chain search, he learned the hoses with the correct connectors for their
units had been discontinued, and the existing but small supply of discontinued
parts had already been procured by other healthcare providers in the same
“When we exhausted all possibilities with potential vendors nationwide,
we appealed to Catawba County’s Emergency Management team for help,”
Helton said. “They were able to procure replacement hoses, but the
connectors that fit the ends of the hoses to the PAPR equipment were still
As one of the lead partners in Catawba County’s coordinated response
to COVID-19, Catawba County Emergency Management maintains awareness of
emergency COVID-19 resources available to counties from local, state,
federal and other emergency partners.
“Knowing the priority being placed on locating additional PPE at
the state and federal levels, there was a chance we might be able to find
the connectors through North Carolina Emergency Management,” said
Bryan Blanton, Catawba County’s emergency services director. “We
made a formal request through the state, and due to the high demand for
this kind of equipment, our search turned up empty.”
Not to be deterred, the county’s emergency management team brainstormed
solutions and pivoted in another direction altogether: working with a
manufacturing partner to replicate the connectors. Blanton initially contacted
the local Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover to discuss this possibility.
“The Manufacturing Solutions Center was very willing to help, but
they didn’t have the type of machine that could make the fitting
non-porous,” Blanton explained. “They referred us to the Rapid
Center at Western Carolina University and helped open the door to what
turned out to be a great solution.”
Using a method called “reverse engineering,” engineers at Western
Carolina University’s Rapid Center developed a 3D model of retrofit
connectors. Adam Griffin, senior mechanical engineering major from Cashiers,
met a representative of Catawba County’s emergency management team
in Asheville to deliver prototype connectors and conducted a fit check
on the spot. This allowed the Rapid Center to immediately begin printing
20 sets of connectors on the center’s 3D printers.
Within a few weeks, Catawba Valley Health System had the connectors and
20 more viable PAPRs in its surge reserves.
“It was rewarding to know that the work we performed for Catawba
Valley Health System doubled the number of PAPR units they had available
for emergency response,” said Patrick Gardner, Rapid Center director.
“The Rapid Center was made for this type of assistance – look
at a customer’s need, and develop a solution that helps them move
forward with their innovation.”
“This project with Catawba County represents just one of many recent
efforts by the College of Engineering and Technology to take advantage
of the expertise of its faculty, staff and students and the capability
of its research and development equipment to help solve a shortage of
face shields and other personal protective gear needed by medical workers
and first responders in the face of the coronavirus disease crisis,”
said Jeff Ray, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology.
“WCU’s Rapid Center and College of Engineering and Technology
are committed to the economic development, health and safety of our communities
in Western North Carolina,” Ray said.