A cardboard cutout of a personal protective suit lying on a drafting table.
Faculty from VCU School of the Arts and VCU School of Pharmacy collaborated to create a design for a piece of protective equipment that covers the body from head to toe. The only holes in the plastic garment are for the face and hands. (Photo by Cate Latham/VCU School of the Arts)

Pharmacy and fashion professors join forces for innovative protective equipment solution

VCU faculty saw that community health care workers needed protective gear and designed a one-piece full-body suit that they hope groups could mass produce.

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To help reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, volunteers around the world have leapt to the work of sewing homemade masks. 

But a dire shortage of other pieces of personal protective equipment, such as gowns, caps and shoe covers, has been more difficult to overcome. The lack of such equipment has led to higher rates of infection and death in health care workers around the world, according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine.

To address the crisis, a Virginia Commonwealth University pharmacy professor and a fashion-design instructor have come up with a simple solution — a single-piece full-body protective suit that can be constructed by anyone who can iron a shirt. 

A person wearing a protective garment.
Cate Latham, an instructor in the Department of Fashion at VCU School of the Arts, models the prototype of a single-piece personal protective equipment garment designed to cover a person from head to toe. Latham and School of Pharmacy assistant professor Shanaka Wijesinghe worked together on the project's design and execution. (Photo by Cate Latham/VCU School of the Arts)

In part because most personal protective equipment is made in factories overseas, the U.S. has been unable to meet the need. For example, the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University estimated last month that the U.S. will need at least 321 million additional isolation gowns just in this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Around the world, health care facilities are resorting to rationing and even reusing personal protective equipment. Still, at many locations the equipment is running out. Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, was acutely aware of the problem.

“A shortage of [disposable isolation gowns, shoe covers and head covering] severely compromises the safety of the health care worker,” Wijesinghe said.  

To find an answer, Wijesinghe joined forces with Cate Latham, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising in VCU’s School of the Arts. Latham and Wijesinghe were connected by Sterling Hundley from the Department of Communication Arts, who organized the COVID Citizen Response forum to connect efforts within VCU schools and units with community makers. 

The duo’s solution: a single piece of personal protective equipment constructed by heating together the seams of two cutout pieces of 0.7-millimeter plastic.

This means full-body suits could be made by volunteers using a simple shared template, a roll of plastic and a standard clothes iron, Wijesinghe said. 

After testing different materials — one early attempt used plastic garbage bags — and tweaking the template for fit, the pair settled on a design that could be seamed together by one person in less than five minutes. 

In addition, since their one-piece design results in a single unbroken garment, this could reduce a wearer’s risk of exposure at the neck and ankles, Wijesinghe said. 

All-in-one PPE gown made in .7 mil plastic. Prototype 2 for Covid19 research. Developed by VCU School of Pharmacy and VCU Fashion Department.

The team has applied for funding through the Health Innovation Consortium’s COVID-19 emergency grant and plans to submit a prototype for review by VCU Health.

Latham is hopeful they will get approval and space will be found where the single-piece suit could be produced at scale, with hundreds being made each week. Although it is relatively simple to make, constructing single-piece protective gowns takes up more space than making a cloth mask, Latham explained. 

“It would be most effective to have a proper facility and a few familiarized persons dedicated to the task to produce a helpful amount in a timely manner,” Latham said. This would be more efficient and could offer a model for developing countries that face even more severe shortages during the pandemic, she added.

While the team explores approval for testing the suit at VCU Health, the designing duo is working on an expanded prototype that adds a face shield.

Wijesinghe and Latham say they’ve been impressed by the willingness of colleagues and the community to come together and work toward a common goal.

“I've met and collaborated with these truly amazing people I would have never met otherwise,” Latham said. “It really demonstrates the strength and power of local community to hold each other up.”