Boston Fed employee and son help thousands with homemade solution to COVID-19 mask irritation
Free mask extenders a 'godsend' for essential workers dealing with ear pain from mandatory masks
Workers deemed “essential” on-site employees during the COVID-19 pandemic face some obvious and greater risks than those working at home – including a higher threat of virus exposure. But there are other costs, big and small, many didn’t see coming. One is severe irritation to the ears from the requirement to wear masks all day.
“When I tell you I thought I was going to have cuts around my ears from the material, I’m not kidding,” said Lisa Perlini, who leads the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s cash services division.
Luckily, this ear discomfort wasn’t entirely unanticipated. Boston Fed employee Mike Holbrook and his 12-year-old son, Harrison, foresaw the problem and researched a solution. Then they printed it.
The result is plastic mask extenders that take pressure off the ears. Holbrook and Harrison have been making the extenders with their 3D printer and with some help from a local company, and they’re giving them away for free by the thousands to essential employees around the nation – including the Boston Fed’s Cash department.
“They are a godsend,” Perlini said. “These things are so popular. … Oh, my Gosh. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me all week.”
The effort hasn’t just been rewarding for the recipients.
“I feel good that I’m helping people,” Harrison said.
3D printer dusted off as pandemic created need for ear relief
Holbrook, an information security principal at the Boston Fed, bought his son the 3D printing machine for Christmas a couple years ago, and Harrison initially used it to print trinkets and tchotchkes, like plastic sheep or Minecraft figurines. But he soon lost interest and the machine began to collect dust.
Then, Harrison’s interest in the 3D printer suddenly rekindled. He began printing again, and the projects became more complex. When the COVID-19 pandemic confined students to their homes, Harrison found himself printing more than ever, including a plastic mask he made for a neighbor.
After Holbrook shared a picture of Harrison’s creation on social media, a family friend suggested that though healthcare workers don’t necessarily need masks, they could use something to alleviate the pain behind the ears caused by continuous mask wear. Holbrook then found a mask extender design Harrison could start printing. It’s essentially a strip of plastic that has a short comb with teeth on either side. The teeth hold the mask’s straps, and the straps fit around the back of the head to take the pressure off the ears.
The first shipment of prototypes was sent to a South Shore hospital nurse who is a Holbrook family friend. Within the first 20 minutes of her shift, she sent a picture of several other nurses using the extenders and a note expressing her certainty everyone would want one.
Holbrook and Harrison increased production to about 20 mask extenders a day. Then, several news outlets picked up the story, and demand for the extenders and information on how to make them came in from all over the country.
Help wanted – and received – as extender demand surged
The Holbrooks realized they needed help making more, and that’s when a local company stepped up. Kirwan Surgical Products LLC, a medical supply company in Marshfield, Mass., can produce up to 1,000 extenders a day.
“We’re going to try to keep getting more people involved in helping print them,” Harrison said. “The more we can make per day, the more we can ship out to help.”
The Boston Fed Law Enforcement Unit was one of the first extender recipients after the Holbrooks donated 100 to Brad Davis, the unit’s director. The unit is keeping the extenders in reserve, in case they run into issues with their current masks or need to make a switch.
“It’s amazing, out-of-the-box thinking,” Davis said.
“It’s an emotional feeling when you see people like that who are willing to give themselves and come up with ideas and not take advantage of others,” he added. “They’re actually just helping others.”
To get the free extenders, email SaveTheEars2020@gmail.com. Include contact information, the number of extenders requested, the business or group the extenders are for, where to ship them, or if pick-up in Rockland, Mass., is possible. The Holbrooks ask recipients to send pictures of the extenders in use in lieu of money.
For those with 3D printing resources, the free mask extender design can be found here: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:4200348.