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How a former Navy SEAL is working with the Air Force to get airmen face masks

A former Navy SEAL is working with the Air Force to ensure that airmen are protected from COVID-19 and has created face masks for them — including one that uses fabric offering similar protection to the N95 masks healthcare workers use.

Ordinarily, Mike Atkinson’s tactical gear company T3 produces equipment like grenade pouches and backpacks. But in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Atkinson and T3 have developed two versions of face masks to help mitigate the spread of the virus: the Freedom mask, which is made from cotton and meets basic DoD requirements, and then the more durable Defender mask, made using a nanofiber fabric.

“The Freedom mask meets the basic DoD requirement,” Atkinson, who served with Navy SEAL Team 8, told Military Times. “It is two pieces of washable cotton secured by ear loops. It offers little in the way of protection.”

That’s why Atkinson took action on a concept one his Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal Training classmates pitched back in March and developed a mask that would provide service members additional protection beyond a swath of cotton.

“The Defender mask is made of fabric tested to the 95 standard,” Atkinson said. “That is, it is tested to be able to stop 95 percent of particles 0.3 microns and above.”

Air Force units have already started to get a hold of both of these masks, after the Air Force’s 82nd Contracting Squadron awarded T3 a $10 million Blanket Purchase Agreement for the Freedom and Defender masks shortly after the Pentagon issued its face mask guidance on April 5.

According to the Air Force’s 82nd Contracting Squadron, T3 and five other vendors have been awarded BPA’s to provide face masks. T3 was selected based on their proposed capacity, price and delivery times, the squadron told Air Force Times.

Now, the company is set to have the capacity to produce up to two million of each of the masks every week by late-May. But making that possible took a significant amount of coordination and planning as T3 developed the Defender masks, according to Atkinson.

“The work started soon after the first meaningful clusters of infections came into the US in early March,” Atkinson said. “It took us about a month to get fabric samples tested independently and prototypes we thought were acceptable. It took an additional two weeks to build out the supply chain so that we can do millions of masks per week.”

Atkinson developed a prototype for the Defender, and they were tested by the North Carolina State University’s National Nonwovens Institute to ensure that they live up to the standards of the N95 masks. Ultimately, the testing found the fabric can block 95 percent of airborne particles 0.3 microns in diameter and above, Atkinson said.

“We send the masks to NWI they put them on a filtration testing machine and they generate test results,” Atkinson said. “The key is the fabric.”

The Defender masks employ a nanofiber fabric, allowing the technology to serve as a physical barrier against the particles. Atkinson originally sourced the fabric from Turkey, but T3 now has a vendor that is U.S.-sourced — meaning the product is headed toward being completely made in the U.S.

“This week we had a huge breakthrough with quality ‘Made in the USA’ fabric being sourced,” Atkinson said on April 24. “Also this week we also found automation technology that will allow us to reduce the labor content of the mask such that the volumes we wish to do can be executed in a cost effective way as a completely ‘Made in the USA’ product.”

The ultimate goal throughout the process has been to provide service members with high-quality protection at a competitive price, according to Atkinson. For government customers, the Freedom and Defender masks cost $4 a piece. The Defender masks come with $3 reusable cover available in three different colors: black, multicam/OCP and coyote.

While the Defender masks are not reusable like the Freedom mask is or as popular, Atkinson said they are the superior mask given that they provide significantly more protection. T3 is also working to test and see if there are ways the masks can be sanitized and worn on multiple occasions.

“Masks that provide meaningful protection are not re-useable,” Atkinson said. “With the U.S. fabric we have just sourced, we are going through testing to see if the mask can be rejuvenated by baking it in an oven. We think this looks exceptionally promising, but it is not yet ready for market.”

The T3 masks will not be used by military healthcare workers, in part because they are not certified yet by Federal Drug Administration and so that N95 masks can be distributed to military healthcare personnel.

The Defender and Freedom masks can also be ordered other federal purchasers under the Blanket Purchase Agreement the Air Force authorized with Atkinson’s company.

On April 5, the Pentagon first announced that service members must wear “cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers.” The services have said N95 masks are reserved for military medical personnel, prompting service members to create their own coverings including neck gaiters, neck warmers and balaclavas.

Days after the Pentagon unveiled the new policy, the Air Force had 1,400 trainees graduate from the Air Force’s Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas — all clad in face masks for the first time ever.

According to the Air Force, 363 airmen have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 195 civilians, 224 dependents, and 77 contractors.

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