CharterCare ER nurse Timothy Aurelio was working a shift in the COVID-19 unit last July when he noticed a security guard with a brown paper bag intertwined with his belt loop.
Joking with the man, Aurelio asked if he had his lunch attached to his waist, but it was his N95 mask. Aurelio asked to see it, and knew upon observing the crushed face covering that it wasn’t going to protect the guard at all.
That led him to search around the department, seeing colleagues leave their masks on desks or hanging from hooks next to the printer. He said one nurse had three of them in her duffle bag, and those were damaged beyond practical use as well.
He went home and started putting an idea on paper - a mask preserver that would be “portable, durable” and infused with anti-microbial, anti-mold, anti-fungal and anti-mildew technology. The N95 Mask Preserver was born and launched March 29, and dozens of states have already placed their orders.
“I got in touch with an engineer, he helped me put it into a CAD file,” Aurelio said during a phone interview earlier this month. “Took a few months to find a manufacturer here in New England that could make it with plastic injection molding, and we got it done. We got a prototype, we put some samples out, had some people test it, came up with a design, it works. ...when you put your mask in there, nothing’s going to grow, it’s not going to stink on you. It’s not going to get crushed, most importantly. And it’s going to offer the protection that it was designed to do, with COVID or any other airborne disease that we have to use N95 for.”
Aurelio, who has worked in the industry for 27 years, said he never “thought I would ever see or go through anything like” the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that, even as vaccination figures grow and fewer people die, people must remain vigilant about wearing their masks, washing their hands and social distancing.
He pointed to younger folks - who may be attending parties and going on spring break - potentially spreading the virus asymptomatically to their older loved ones.
“In one word, challenging. It’s been challenging,” Aurelio said of the past year. “People just coming in so sick. In the beginning it was mostly elderly from the nursing homes and elderly population, and then as the year’s progressed we’re seeing younger folks, people in their 20s and 30s coming in just awfully, awfully sick and requiring pretty intense medical care. It’s not going away. Every day I go to work, I do 12-hour shifts, and let me tell you, it’s not going away. It’s here.”
He said if people continue to shirk the rules, mask-wearing could become the new normal well beyond the end of the crisis. He said that large gatherings - whether they take place at funerals, sports arenas or clubs - will invite the opportunity for COVID to spread as long as attendees aren’t cognizant of the risk.
“People aren’t following the rules,” Aurelio said. “They’re not following directions. They’re so exhausted from the regulations and the rules ... I think people are so fed up with that, and this is just what I hear and what I see from patients and from my colleagues, and myself, it’s gone on for so long that I think we’re getting complacent with safety, and plus these new variants that are coming into play is not helping the situation either. They spread twice as fast, up to five times as fast, which is just complicating things. Now we’re opening up travel again.”
He said that Rhode Islanders should get vaccinated “as soon as you can,” and he advocated for educating the hesitant portion of the population still uneasy about getting their shots.
“Vaccines work. We’ve got to educate the populations that are on the fence or afraid to get vaccinated,” Aurelio said. “We have to all do our part to educate those folks and show them the science that the vaccines are safe and they work, and some protection - even if all these vaccines are only good for six months of protection, six months is six months. Ninety percent is better than no protection at all in my opinion. I see what this virus can do to somebody in real life, and it’s not fun. It’s not pretty at all. It’s not a fun way to end your life on a ventilator, alone, in a hospital, in an ICU unit or in an ER. It’s just not the way you want to go.”
Those who want more information or would like to place an order can visit www.n95maskpreserver.com, which Aurelio said is a “full e-commerce site” that accepts all forms of payment. He thanked Rhode Island Hub - which according to its website is “a network of innovators, investors, students, citizens and those interested in building our economy through new ideas” - for its help in getting the business off the ground.
“I’ve never invented anything in my life,” he said. “This is a new adventure for me, and if I didn’t have Rhode Island Hub and the mentoring team that I have, I wouldn’t have come this far. A lot of people I have to thank, and this product is not only going to protect frontline health care workers’ masks, but it’s also going to save the hospital systems money in N95 purchases, because there’s a lot of waste that goes on.
“I don’t understand why this didn’t happen before, I’m glad that I’m the one who thought of it, and being here in Rhode Island and working in a Rhode Island emergency department, I’m grateful, but this is long overdue.”