The Rutherford Report: Local Invention May Help in COVID-19 Battle

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“Prevention is better
than cure.”

—Desiderius Erasmus
Local Invention May Help in COVID-19 Battle

Years before COVID-19 threatened to infect doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers trying to save people’s lives, Dr. Mark Comunale was fashioning a device to isolate highly infectious patients.

Today, the device he invented—the Patient Isolation Transport Unit (PITU)—and a Fontana company that helped develop it could play a critical role in the battle against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

It started in 2014.

Comunale, who serves as Chairman of the Department of Anesthesia at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, was thinking about ways to keep medical professionals safe in light of the Ebola outbreak sweeping Western Africa.

“You have to isolate patients rapidly, and we didn’t have a way to do that without a great deal of effort,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could take the room to the patient?”

Patients infected with a highly infectious virus like Ebola should be placed in a negative pressure room to protect healthcare workers trying to save them. But most hospitals have only a few negative pressure rooms, if any at all, and transforming hospital rooms into negative pressure environments is time-consuming and costly.

In a negative pressure room, low air pressure draws fresh air into the room so contaminates don’t escape.

The PITU is a large vinyl enclosure that fits over most hospital gurneys so infectious patients can be isolated and moved without exposing others.

Motors pull air out and pass it through filters to generate negative pressure; meanwhile, two ports with arm sleeves and gloves allow caregivers to safely reach into the enclosure. There are also chambers to pass items such as food to patients.

Comunale constructed a prototype of the PITU to use at Arrowhead Regional and began the process to patent his invention.

An attorney connected him with Bud Weisbart—Vice President of A&R Tarpaulins (AR Tech) in Fontana—when he was looking for a partner to help manufacture the isolation unit.

AR Tech specializes in making custom fabric products including the large contamination cover needed for NASA’s James Webb Telescope.

It was a perfect fit.

In fact, one of the first issues Weisbart identified was the lack of an adjustable frame to allow the PITU to securely fit multiple gurneys. Weisbart realized AR Tech wasn’t set up to manufacture PITUs in large quantities, so he connected with a startup company in Riverside called Industrus.

Comunale submitted the PITU for the Food and Drug Administration’s regular approval process in January, but he switched to an emergency authorization request after the novel coronavirus— that first appeared in China in late 2019—began sickening people around the globe.

The developers sent answers to what could be the final round of questions from the FDA recently, so the PITU could be put into use in the coming months.

Weisbart said the device will be a game changer in terms of protecting medical personnel and making stays more comfortable for patients.

“If their family members are properly attired, they are able to go in and be close to the patient,” he said. “They can’t hug, but they can be in close proximity. We’ve heard about patients who died alone. It’s just tragic to think of that.”

In addition to hospital applications, the PITU has raised interest in a range of potential buyers from the military to theme parks.

“Think about it, if a child came into the infirmary at Disneyland with measles—a highly infectious disease—you would need to isolate the child as quickly as possible,” Comunale said.

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