One of the many shortages that has taken hold during the pandemic is one of personal protective equipment — items used to protect individuals from being exposed to a virus.
A group of Cornell undergraduates is trying to stem that shortage with their new design for a mask, which is tailored for the COVID-19 outbreak.
The team, many of whom initially competed and won the seventh annual New York City Health Hackathon hosted by Weill Cornell Medical College, designed a smart mask called “Vital Mask” to be specifically used in emergency rooms. Since the pandemic exacerbates staff shortages and timely patient treatment, proper protection in emergency rooms is vital.
A month-and-a-half after competing in the hackathon several of the members of the team founded Vita Innovations so that they could commercialize their design. The Cornell team drew from current healthcare demands and opinions from physicians and other healthcare experts to bring together their prize-winning design, a smart mask called “Vital Mask.”
Oscar Liu ’21, CEO of Vita Innovations and a member of the New York City team, explained the several key design components that they considered during the hackathon. Since N95 masks can cause difficulty in breathing for some patients due to the tight fit and filter, the team sought to make more breathable masks.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration does not recommend these masks for patients with breathing problems and these masks are primarily meant for medical professionals.
“This was the first thing we looked in to,” Liu said. “Breathability should be key for a COVID patient.”
Another feature the team aims to improve upon is the material of the masks. The students are researching more options for mask material, as well as ways to make the masks reusable to combat mask shortages.
What made their mask truly stand out was the consideration of another pressing healthcare issue: emergency room wait times. According to a nationwide evaluation conducted by a nonprofit newsroom last fall, average ER wait times can range from two to over five hours depending on the state — some patients end up getting sent home without ever being admitted.
The mask protects patients in crowded waiting rooms from possible cross infections. When many patients are seeking treatment for infectious diseases they enter alongside those with chronic and underlying conditions, so the students wanted to lessen the risk of visiting the hospital.
“A lot of people who go into the hospital risk coming out worse than [they] came in because of transmission rates,” said Rishi Singhal ’21. “Going to the hospital should not be a risk.”
The masks monitor breathing rate, beats per minute, oxygen saturation and temperature — the signs Weill Cornell Medicine uses to diagnose and monitor COVID-19. Then, the information these masks collect is sent to a computer, allowing for medical staff to monitor patients from afar rather than having to see each individual patient.
“[The mask] interfaces would be used by physicians in medical clinics, ambulances, basically any care setting.” said Ray Wei ’22, who is working on developing a desktop application for displaying vital signs.
The software team also wants to include more visualizations and analytical data on patient conditions, and are even looking into consolidating patient records.
“After this is fully implemented, we also want a mobile app for patients so they can have a simple interface for their own use,” added team member Daniel Stabile ’21.
Vita Innovations has been conducting outreach to obtain feedback straight from front line workers, primarily reaching out to emergency medicine clinicians. They found that the top concerns for those in the emergency room is safety, accuracy, cost, and comfort into their product.
Although the team prioritizes the desktop app, it also wants to develop the mobile app in response to feedback from the patient population during its outreach. Patient autonomy is a growing trend that allows individuals to make informed decisions about their own health care.
Julia Isakov ’21, the startup’s new financial manager, described one of the ways the startup is so unique.
“Although we have all had internships and research positions, we haven’t worked in industry. We see things from an outside perspective, and we see what can be changed,” Isakov said.
Despite the challenges of remote work and funding, the team has met consistently to continue their work fighting the current pandemic as well as longstanding healthcare issues, hoping to make a meaningful impact.
“Even if we are students, and there is a lot that goes into medical device approval and regulation and navigating markets — we see a medical need, and we have an opportunity with this team of eight to make a tangible impact.”