Charleston engineer teams up with boat builder to develop new safety device to protect coronavirus workers

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Charleston, S.C., residents Rob Harding, an engineer, and David Johnson, a boat builder from the region’s low country, have teamed up to build protective intubation boxes for health care workers performing the high-risk procedure on COVID-19 patients.

“A CRNA [Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist], who was intubating COVID patients, had seen these intubation shields and asked if I could make her one since there was nowhere to buy one,” Rob Harding, an IT engineer at Nucor Steel, said. “She gave me a rough pencil drawing of what it looked like and I told her, ‘I’m pretty sure I can make a good version of it.’”

The nurse had seen the Aerosol Box that Dr. Hsien Yung Lai, an anesthesiologist treating COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Taiwan, had designed.

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Harding used a 3D printer that Nucor provided to make the initial design of the boxes. When it came time to build them, he turned to his friend David Johnson, owner of TAG Boats. The two men worked on a redesign to make assembly and alignment easier. They also added a slanted top piece to allow doctors and nurses to “look straight through” and oblong arms slots “to fit the natural hand position.”

David Johnson, owner of TAG boats in Charleston, South Carolina, helped to develop an intubation box with engineer Rob Harding

David Johnson, owner of TAG boats in Charleston, South Carolina, helped to develop an intubation box with engineer Rob Harding

The engineer said he was motivated to use his skills to give back to medical workers in their time of need, the same way they did for his son. Harding’s son Cameron was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy shortly after he was born. Since then, he’s been inventing things to help disabled children.

“No one came to us and offered us money to cut these,” Johnson tells Fox News. “We just wanted to something good and help out since we’ve got the equipment, resources, and manpower.”

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When Cameran Eubanks, who appeared on the Bravo series "Southern Charm" for six seasons, heard about the boxes on social media, she contacted Harding about making one for her husband, Dr. Jason Wimberly, an anesthesiologist at Trident Medical Center.

In an April 9 Instagram post, she shared with her 1.2 million followers a photo of her husband and the intubation box and thanked Harding and Johnson.

Eubanks wrote, "In times of crisis, you will see innovation and adaptation. Evolution. When the human will is tested, we can do amazing things. Rob Harding (@charlestondiving) is an engineer with Nucor here in Charleston. Someone posted that he was building these acrylic 'intubation boxes' to help shield and protect the doctors and nurses who are intubating COVID patients. For those who don’t know, this is an extremely high-risk procedure for transmission of the virus," she wrote. "God Bless you, Rob, for your incredible act of kindness. You are a hero too and an example of the true goodness that can come from adversity."

Wimberly explained why the device is so helpful for frontline health care workers.

“Intubating a patient with COVID-19 is a high-risk procedure due to the fact that you’re in the patient’s airway. You’re kind of front and center with the mode of transmission,” he said, adding: “It is not a replacement for the personal protective equipment [PPE] we wear, but it is definitely an adjunct that can minimize our exposure when we have to put critically ill patients on a ventilator in order to breathe.”

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Within hours of Eubanks’ post, the pair said they became inundated with requests for the intubation boxes from across the country. They began shipping and handing them out as fast as they could—all free of charge.

“The demand just blew up,” Harding said.  “I had people driving from hours away to pick them up for their medical staff.”

A demonstration of how the intubation box can help provide extra safety when placing COVID-19 patients on a respirator.

A demonstration of how the intubation box can help provide extra safety when placing COVID-19 patients on a respirator. (Courtesy of Rob Harding)

Johnson said each sheet of acrylic costs about $130 and takes about 40 minutes to make. They have delivered many boxes to local medical facilities but have also shipped about 240 devices to other states including California and New York.

Harding says Nucor Steel has “supported and aligned with the effort and is building shields at the various Nucor mills to donate to local hospitals.”

Harding and Johnson have not charged anyone for the devices but are taking donations on a GoFundMe page.

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Harding also wants to help others build their own devices, saying, “I created a page on instructibles.com of how to build the boxes so anybody could be able to build one.”