UF researchers seek to improve safety of personal protective equipment for health care workers

Through a newly funded National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research, or RAPID, grant, University of Florida researchers in environmental and global health and in epidemiology are on a mission to improve personal protective equipment to better protect health care workers and the broader community from infection with SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Led by Tara Sabo-Attwood, Ph.D.; John Lednicky, Ph.D.; and Cindy Prins, Ph.D., M.P.H., in collaboration with Navid Saleh, Ph.D., of the University of Texas department of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, researchers are wrapping nanomaterials — very small synthetic particles —in soap molecules designed to kill the virus once it is filtered by a face mask.

In the current pandemic, some health care facilities do not have adequate supplies of PPE, and workers are reusing masks beyond their intended use. In addition, most masks can capture viruses but not necessarily kill them.

“It is possible that during long reuse periods, the masks harbor virus particles that may still be infectious,” said Sabo-Attwood, chair of the department of environmental and global health in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and a member of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.

The team hopes to use nanotechnology to improve both the capturing and killing of virus particles in the design of PPE, allowing for extended use and better protection. The researchers realize PPE need to be more efficient but also not more difficult for the user to wear.

“It’s important for health care workers to have protective equipment, but if that equipment is very uncomfortable or gets in the way of someone doing their job, then PPE compliance decreases,” said Prins, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and College of Medicine and PHHP’s assistant dean for educational affairs.

Bridging engineering technology and applied public health to design better PPE that is appropriate for real-world situations has been a primary goal of the team from the start, Sabo-Attwood said.

“Bringing together experts in engineering, nanotechnology, epidemiology, public health practice, virology and infection control allows us to work in tandem to reach this goal,” she said.

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