By Aurora Ferrer
Small, non-profit, “makerspaces” in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico are helping to combat the personal protective equipment shortage for medical workers on the border.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, El Paso-based Fab Lab (short for Fabrication Laboratory), has put its technological resources, including 3D printers, towards making face masks and face shields for front line workers, as well as parts for respirators. An open-source, design-and-manufacturing organization, Fab Lab El Paso is a non-profit that also provides STEM training for students and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, its sister labs, Fab Lab Juarez and Fab Lab Paso del Norte in Mexico have also started to make protective equipment, using funds recently raised through donations.
Governments in both the United States and Mexico have widely faced criticism over severe shortages of protective equipment in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, which have been shown to place healthcare workers in greater danger of contracting the highly contagious and often deadly virus. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. has the highest rate of Covid-19 infections in the world, while Mexico has the third-highest rate among Latin American countries.
As of mid-May, the El Paso County Health Department reported 1,234 cases and 82 deaths. The state of Chihuahua in Mexico reported 943 cases and 169 deaths.
The Fab Labs on both sides of the border decided to answer the call for protective equipment before they had received funding. Samuel Badillo, operations director at Fundación Axcel, which runs the Juarez Fab Labs, said, “We just started doing it” and decided to figure out how to pay for it later.
With skeleton crews of two-to-three people working short shifts (about six hours) because of social distancing efforts, the organization was able to turn out 3,000 masks in about three weeks.
Fundación Axcel, founded in 2013, provides training, consulting and education for high school students, entrepreneurs and anyone else who wants to learn about technology. Through its Fab Labs it also focuses on digital fabrications and rapid prototyping. It is the non-profit arm of the Technology Hub, which according to its website, “is a binational business incubator built to stimulate regional innovation, entrepreneurship, and industry.”
Originally founded in 2014, Fab Lab El Paso recently received a $1,500 grant from the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation (PDNHF) for the protective-equipment project. Additional funding has been provided by United Healthcare, as well as other companies, organizations and individual supporters.
Cathy Chen, executive director at Fab Lab El Paso said the organization has sent out “hundreds of PPE to Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, which has 10 clinics in El Paso and serves low-income community needs.” She also notes that United Healthcare and “affiliate senior care centers” have received hundreds of protective devices, as well as sending “1,500 pieces of N100 mask frames and face shields to [nonprofits] in Mexico for community distribution.”
Fab Lab El Paso is also fulfilling daily smaller orders for protective equipment. “All in all, we have sent out almost 3,000 pieces of PPE and are in the process of prototyping custom PPE for specific medical needs, such as dentists and surgeons,” said Chen.
The Mexican organizations have had more success attracting government support than Fab Lab El Paso. In addition to private donations, which included an SLA printer (used for respirator parts,) the Juarez Fab Labs have received some support from their local government.
Meanwhile, Fab Lab El Paso has struggled to obtain funds from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a problem that has persisted among many small American businesses and non-profits. “We did qualify for a small advance from the SBA (Small Business Administration) under the Economic Injury and Disaster Loan program,” said Chen, noting that the organization has not yet received a response to its application for a PPP loan.
The El Paso border has been hit especially hard, economically. With the U.S./ Mexico border closed to non-essential travel, and the quarantine shutting down all non-essential businesses, trade between El Paso and Juarez has come to a standstill. According to Workforce Solutions Borderplex, 38,104 unemployment insurance claims were filed on the U.S. side of the border between March 29th and April 30th.