B.C. doctor’s ‘fairly simple’ invention aims to curb the spread of COVID-19

It may look like an empty closet waiting for clothes to be hung or brooms to be stored, but Dr. Curt Smecher’s invention is hardly so ordinary.

The negative-pressure vestibule designed by the anesthesiologist is the latest in COVID-19 infection control — an operating room add-on that basically works like a vacuum cleaner sucking up airborne viruses that pose a transmission risk to staff and patients.

“It’s a fairly simple idea,” says Smecher, who first started pushing the idea over a month ago. It’s now in use at three Fraser Health hospitals: Surrey Memorial, Royal Columbian and Abbotsford Regional.

It works by changing how air normally flows in an operating room.

Usually, operating rooms operate under what’s called positive air pressure, where an open door would mean air is flowing out of the OR. That’s desirable, because it pushes germs away from the area of surgery, and sterile medical equipment.

The problem is, it can also cause airborne contaminants like coronavirus to spread outside the operating room, where it can infect others.

Smecher’s invention — a negative-pressure vestibule that attaches to the outside of one set of operating room doors — keeps the air flowing out of the OR, but sucks it up like a vacuum cleaner, catching any virus that may get into the air when, for example, a COVID-19 patient is having a breathing tube inserted or removed. 

Smecher’s negative pressure vestibule is now being used at three Fraser Health Authority hospitals to help stop transmission of virus when COVID-19 patients are in the operating room. (Submitted by Dr. Curt Smetcher)

“The two most dangerous periods in the operating room for viral spread into the air are intubations and extubations,” said Smecher.

“[The vestibule] … sucks out any contaminants, in this case the COVID virus, and gets rid of it through filters, sending the exhaust air into the outside.”

As inventions go, it’s not highly sophisticated, although it was born of necessity and concern in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Smecher and his collegues were trying to wrap their heads around the scope and severity of the outbreak.  

“When this first hit us, we didn’t really know what to expect. We were seeing the news from China and the news from Italy and we were anticipating that things would get very bad in B.C.,” he said.

“To some extent we’ve dodged that bullet for now, but for a time it was looking like [infection] would be a huge problem.”

The vestibule at Abbotsford Hospital was constructed in just over 24 hours at a cost of $20,000.

Smecher has no plans to patent his invention.

“We’re not keeping this a trade secret or expecting anything in return for our information,” he said.

“In fact, to protect patients and health care workers during this pandemic, we want to share our ideas with hospitals
throughout British Columbia and across the world.”


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