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With N95 Masks In Short Supply, Governments Disinfect And Reuse Disposable Masks

Meaghan Hislop, a biologist with Curis Decontamination System in Oviedo. (Photo Courtesy Lake County)
Meaghan Hislop, a biologist with Curis Decontamination System in Oviedo. (Photo Courtesy Lake County)

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Lake County Fire Rescue is using hydrogen peroxide vapor to sterilize and reuse N95 masks. (Photo courtesy Lake County)[/caption]

Here’s one possible solution to the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment, like N95 masks: Using hydrogen peroxide vapor to sterilize the disposable masks, and use them again.

In a Curis Decontamination System’s test lab in Oviedo, used N95 masks and protective gowns sit on steel shelves. A red light blinks on a black machine the size of a rolling suitcase.

And in seconds, the room is cloudy with a vapor made from hydrogen peroxide - yes, the same bubbly liquid you use to disinfect a cut. Only this time, it’s disinfecting the N95 masks and gowns.

“We will be able to sterilize 300 masks at a time," said Lake County Fire Chief Jim Dickerson. "The process takes about three hours."

Lake County Fire Department is now sanitizing N95 masks using this system. The county has spent $15,000 to buy the machines.

“Instead of sitting in a chair and complaining about the supply chain, we actually did something about it and got proactive and came up with a solution that will keep our first responders healthy and protected until the supply chain opens back up,” Dickerson said.

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Lake County Fire Chief Jim Dickerson says sterilizing and reusing the N95 masks will help stretch the county's supply. (Photo courtesy Lake County)[/caption]

One survey by the nonprofit group GetUsPPE of 670 health care organizations nationwide found 41 percent of them only had enough N95 masks to last a week. And another 20 percent were already out of masks.

GetUsPPE crowdsources requests for N95 masks to try to match them with reputable suppliers. It reports more than 30 requests from Central Florida organizations for PPE, including one for more than 80,000 masks.

In normal times, a health care worker would wear an N95 mask for one interaction with a patient and then dispose of it. But with supplies running thin, some hospitals and agencies are requiring N95 masks be reused.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida would order millions of N95 masks so the state could deliver them to health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. But the masks just wouldn’t show up, or the orders would be smaller.

A reporter asked DeSantis if he thought what was happening with N95 masks was criminal.

“I don’t want to say that it is because I don’t have firsthand knowledge," DeSantis said. "But I can tell you it’s shady as hell, that’s for sure.”

Using hydrogen peroxide vapor to disinfect masks is catching on. West Virginia’s National Guard has contracted with Curis for the system, sending an airplane to to pick up the equipment.

It’s also caught the federal government’s attention. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an emergency contract to spend up to $400 million dollars with a company called Battelle to decontaminate and reuse masks at 60 sites nationwide using hydrogen peroxide vapor.

Curis Systems Biologist Meaghan Hislop said decontaminating the masks is the easy part. They use two sets of indicators: One makes sure hydrogen peroxide touched all the areas it needs to, and another makes sure it kills a sample of bacterial spores.

Hislop said the hard part is the elastic bands on the masks degrade before the actual mask. So the company recommends N95 masks be decontaminated and reused no more than 20 times.

“We've set our parameters at 20 uses, because we have existing studies not showing degradation until you get into the numbers of the 30s,” Hislop said.

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Meaghan Hislop, a biologist with Curis Decontamination System in Oviedo. (Photo Courtesy Lake County)[/caption]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that in a crisis, N95 masks can be sanitized and reused with hydrogen peroxide vapor. The CDC says limited research also shows UV germicidal irradiation and moist heat hold the most promise.

Hislop said the biggest hurdle for Oviedo-based Curis, is convincing people in a pandemic that this is not a new technology. It’s been registered with the EPA to disinfect hospital and health care settings and kill certain bacteria, like staph, and C. Diff spores - but not viruses. That's because if hydrogen peroxide vapor can kill bacterial spores, it's reasonable to assume it will also kill an enveloped coronavirus.

“This is an EPA registered device," Hislop said. "Our formula has EPA approval. These are tools we’re using that have already passed, in a non-pandemic, non-emergency time, have passed this government approval.”