In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, UF Health Anesthesiologist Dr. Bruce Spiess says he woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany that addressed the face mask shortage happening early on in what has become the largest public health crisis of his career.
Spiess, 66, said it occurred to him that the polypropylene wrapping material used to keep surgical tools sterile could be saved, recycled and then turned into face masks to address the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage not only in Alachua County or Florida, but around the world.
Alachua County hospitals started collecting the material to use for face masks and so did hospitals around the state, nation and the world.
Sewists in Alachua County rallied and soon teamed up with Spiess and started producing thousands of face masks based off of patterns that were shared on Facebook groups.
“Somebody made over 20,000 (face masks) herself,” Spiess said. “And I have not heard of a single person who has used these masks getting COVID-19.”
Mainstreet Daily News first reported about the discovery on March 26.
The story went viral and was shared on social media and in open source COVID-19 Facebook groups that were pooling resources to help solve the PPE shortage of not only face masks, but face shields, and ventilators and nasal swabs among other supplies. The story has logged more than 700,000 visits.
The phone started ringing off the hook with medical institutions and media reaching out, Dr. Spiess said.
He started averaging 5,000 emails a day about his discovery, he said, adding that he had to take several days off of work to handle the incoming messages with the help of his wife. UF Health then assigned two assistants to help field those emails and, eventually, a FAQ (frequently asked questions) worksheet was established to help manage the correspondence load.
“I’m glad life has gotten back to normal,” Spiess said last week on Dec. 18th, the same day that he received his first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Back in late March, Spiess, who specializes in treating respiratory patients and in researching solutions to pulmonary diseases, said he had not worked with a COVID-19 patient yet.
“So far, I have not had to care for a COVID-19 patient,” he said on March 28th. “But I think the wave is just south of us and it’s going to be in our hospital in a big way before this weekend.”
His prediction was correct. Dr. Spiess, has been treating COVID-19 patients at UF Health Shands now for nine months and deems the COVID-19 pandemic as “The biggest health crisis in at least 100 years.”
He said he has assisted in three double-lung transplant procedures given to COVID-19 survivors at UF Health and that UF Health has successfully carried out nine transplants on COVID-19 survivors so far.
One of those recipients, Dennis Zayas, was discharged on Dec. 16th. In a post on the Facebook page Survivor Corps Zayas’ wife Jessica shared a video of Dennis leaving UF Health Shands Hospital and wrote, “On July 19th my husband was admitted at Tampa General Hospital, the next day he was intubated. On August 5th he was placed on ECMO (extracorporeal life support), on October 12th he was transferred to University of Florida Shands Hospital.
“Dennis received the gift of life a double lung transplant on October 27th and was taken off of ECMO on November 4th. Please don’t give up even when doctors tell you there is nothing they can do for your love one. Keep fighting here is a video of my husband’s discharge from the hospital.”
“Their lungs were destroyed,” Spiess said about most double-lung transplant patients who battled COVID-19. “This is the tip of a very large iceberg that we will see over the next 20 years,” he added, referring to the ongoing fibrosis and chronic inflammation that many COVID-19 survivors are experiencing.
Spiess can’t emphasize how much face mask wearing can help save lives and lower the number of people who will suffer long term from battling COVID-19.
“I am still getting contacted from people around the world who are making large amounts of masks,” he said. “They have been made on every continent, and by the U.S. military,” he said.
A medical group in Australia tested Dr. Spiess’ discovery and two layers of surgical wrap have passed the N-95 testing there, he said. UF did not complete the official testing procedure.
As a result of his discovery, Dr. Spiess said he was contacted by the head of Ford manufacturing who reached out to him about mass producing the face masks but, after a few weeks of discussion, they quickly turned efforts to manufacturing ventilators.
Last week the pandemic came full circle for Dr. Spiess when he received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We in the operating rooms are listed as 1-A to get the vaccine,” he said. “I was impressed at how organized UF is. As soon as you got your vaccine, your next appointment was made to come back for the second dose.
“My left arm does hurt a little bit,” Dr. Spiess said hours after he received the shot. “It’s the same thing you would feel with a flu vaccine,” he said, and reported that he had no fever, chills or nausea, just a little pain in the left arm.
“All we have to do is get the vaccine into a large amount of the population to see it (COVID-19 cases) decrease,” he said.
“I hope the vaccine has an efficacy of more than 6 months or a year. And I hope we learn some lessons about how to pull together,” he said.
Spiess was glad his discovery was well-received and utilized throughout Alachua County and beyond.
“I am glad to have made some contributions,” he said. “But I’m not done with this whole COVID thing yet.
“There is still a lot left to get done. We are still in the heat of this pandemic at the moment,” he said.
He referred back to the lung transplants of COVID-19 patients that he has participated in.
“I did one Tuesday night,” he said. “It was just heartwarming to see a huge smile on the patient’s face because of the second chance at life. That’s the reward. To save a life.”
Spiess said that when he retires from his clinical practice, he won’t stop coming up with unique solutions.
“My greatest scientific advances are right in front of me,” he said, and added that he still wears the face masks he helped invent back in March to the operating room every day.
“I like them the best,” Dr. Spiess said. “They’re comfortable to wear, high filtration, and I use them every day.”