masks
Coronavirus Public Health

Coronavirus Heroes: Master Mask Maker

The nationwide shortage of protective face masks for those treating coronavirus patients has reached crisis levels. But the chief nurse executive of San Antonio’s University Health Systems created a solution, literally out of whole cloth.

The masks designed by Nurse Tommye Austin provide more effective filtering than even the N-95 masks in great demand—as high as 99.5 percent, Austin says, compared to 95 percent for the N-95. A second version she created has a 97.8 percent rate.

“In the event that we get a surge of COVID-19 patients in San Antonio, which is predicted to happen in May, we are making sure we have adequate and sufficient equipment for employees,” Austin told San Antonio’s KSAT-TV. “Once we learned that the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had given us the ability to create masks, rather than using a bandana or a handkerchief, we decided to look at creating our own N-95.”

Austin created the design (including material from air-conditioning filters bought at Lowe’s), had the masks tested for efficiency at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, had her team start making them by the hundreds … and then posted the design and instructions online and made a YouTube video about it. 

The goal was to make 6,500 masks themselves, and to show anyone with access to the materials how to make their own.

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“Hearing the stories from the nurses in New York and other hot spots, it was just heartbreaking,’’ Austin told KSAT. “As a nurse, we are to be advocates for people, so my primary goal was not to make money off this mask or anything. The main purpose of this mask was to keep people safe.”

The key, she said, was making a mask that fit as comfortably as the standard N95, with as complete a seal on the face, with less chance of dangerous carbon dioxide buildup, and can be worn longer and then later easily sanitized to use again.

Austin, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas Health Science Center, was already considered a hero in the state medical community. She orchestrated the response by University Hospital to the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, 25 miles southeast of San Antonio. Also, her staff was instrumental in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort in the Houston area the same year. 

As chief nurse executive at the hospital since 2017, Austin has been honored by Modern Healthcare as one of its “50 Most Influential Clinical Executives” and one of its “Top 25 Minority Leaders,” and by the University of Texas School of Nursing as one of its Visionary Leaders.

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—David Steele

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