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From left, Peter Snyder, vice president for research and economic development; Tao Wei, URI associate professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering; Dana Lesperance, director at Absolute Respiratory Care; Alex Hornstein, leader of the VentilatorProject.Org, and Air Force Col. Erik Brine,  executive director at National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I.— Machines used to help those with sleep apnea breathe easier are getting a second life in COVID-19 treatment efforts thanks to a project that involves the University of Rhode Island.

VentilatorProject.Org has joined URI, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, the Rhode Island Department of Health, fire stations and other hospital and industry partners across the state to collect and refurbish sleep apnea machines to serve as supplementary equipment to hospitals that are treating patients affected by COVID-19.

As states struggle with limited supplies of ventilators for patients in intensive care units as a result of the pandemic, VentilatorProject.Org has been coordinating with doctors around the world to collect, vet and document innovative uses of the machines in hospitals as they treat COVID-19 patients without exposing health care workers to aerosolized virus.

The newly-formed group is led by Alex Hornstein of Providence and is made up of a volunteers, including engineers, designers, technologists and doctors.  

“Since we started in mid-March, our team has grown to 60 volunteers who have been working around the clock to understand the needs of doctors and hospitals, researching and testing technology as it becomes available,” Hornstein said. “It’s amazing how friends, neighbors  and talented strangers around the world have quickly come together to rise to this great challenge that faces us all.”

URI President David M. Dooley said URI’s role in the project is consistent with its mission.

“Our participation in this extraordinary venture exemplifies the central mission of the university, to be of service to Rhode Island and its citizens and to bring our expertise and ingenuity to our community and the world,” Dooley said.

“We are honored to be working with some of the best and most creative minds in Rhode Island and the selfless men and women of the fire service to take on one of the biggest challenges of our time,” he said. “I am confident that we will be successful in this effort to help save the lives of our neighbors here and around the world.”

Peter Snyder, vice president for research and economic development, said the university’s Division of Research and Economic Development and URI Ventures are playing a key role in the effort.

“Our world-class research and technical skills will be essential components of this statewide collaboration that has been organized to help the state during this crisis,” Snyder said. “I am grateful for the outstanding support from URI’s Division of Student Affairs and other campus units.”

According to industry statistics, of the 8.5 million sleep apnea CPAP and BiPAP machines in homes in America, 2.9 million of those machines are not in use.

Those extra machines could be donated by willing owners, refurbished and brought to hospitals to help provide additional respiratory equipment and give doctors the flexibility to free up time on scarce hospital ventilators, the Ventilator Project argues. The team estimates that 9,000 such machines are available in Rhode Island.

State residents can donate new or used units to support hospitals. They would drop off a machine at collection centers at fire departments across the state.

From there, the machine will be brought to a processing center at URI, where technical volunteers from across the university will work to sanitize, test, document and refurbish the devices under the oversight of Tao Wei, a URI associate professor of electrical engineering.

Refurbished machines will be distributed to hospitals and health care facilities in Rhode Island as needed, and then to other places in need.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance to help facilitate their use in hospitals, and doctors at  The Mount Sinai Hospital and Northwell Health in New York both issued recent protocols for using home-use machines in a hospital setting to treat COVID-19 patients.

Specific instructions and criteria for donating the machines are available at VentilatorProject.Org, along with other ways to donate for those without available machines.

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