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VCU Health develops 'innovative' process to decontaminate N95 masks

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Posted at 2:21 PM, Apr 09, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased demand for N95 masks, VCU Health doctors and researchers have developed a method to decontaminate and reuse the masks.

VCU Health says they have begun a pilot program to safely decontaminate N95 masks to mitigate the N95 shortage in hospitals.

The N95 mask is considered one of the most essential personal protective equipment used by health care workers

Health officials say the N95 respirator forms a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth and is 95% effective in preventing droplet penetration, which is vital in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have to preserve what we have,” said Stephen L. Kates, M.D., chair of orthopaedic surgery at VCU Health, who is part of the development team for this method. “The ideal thing would be to give every nurse and doctor and technician a brand-new 3M mask every day. But given these unprecedented times, we can’t do that right now.”

Kates says VCU Medical Center uses about 450 masks on a typical day and that number will continue to rise as the pandemic continues.

VCU Health reasearchers designed and constructed equipment that can process 12,000 masks per day, more than 10 times what is currently available.

VCU Health’s "innovative" decontamination process uses high-intensity ultraviolet light.

The decontamination process:

• Used masks are collected on each unit and deposited in a paper bag and plastic bin, labeled with the wearer’s name, employee number and where they work.
• When a unit’s collection bin is full, it is sent to the mask decontamination facility, housed in the former Museum of the Confederacy.
• Before the masks are returned to the original user, they undergo a strict series of quality checks, including testing for moisture, penetration, fit and breathability.

“N95 masks are critical to the safety of those working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., director of the VCU Health Infection Prevention Program. “Using this decontamination method, we’re providing our team members increased access to [personal protective equipment] so they and our patients may remain safe during a time when PPE access is not always guaranteed.”

VCU Health says other decontamination methods like using alcohol or steam can work, but they can also compromise the integrity of the masks after one or two uses.

VCU Health says their decontamination process makes the masks reusable multiple times and can be easily implemented by other hospitals.

Officials say they plan to share their design and process with the University of Virginia and other hospitals across the state and country.