Where Thousands of Masks a Day Are Decontaminated to Battle the Virus

By Tiffany Hsu

Inside the rural Ohio labs run by Battelle, a nonprofit research and development firm, scientists have tested explosives, experimented with atomic energy and worked with chemical nerve agents. But some of the group’s most critical work is now happening outside, in a parking lot.

Under a tent near the small town of West Jefferson, employees have spent recent weeks decontaminating more than 30,000 used face masks for doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Each day, N95 masks collected from more than 100 hospitals, clinics, fire departments and nursing homes are treated for hours with a hydrogen peroxide vapor. Once cleaned, the masks are sent back to the same facilities to be reused.

A severe shortage of personal protective equipment has left hospitals desperate as the outbreak continues to spread.

Late last month, Battelle was granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration to expand its decontamination efforts, following pressure from President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio. Battelle said its process, what they call the Critical Care Decontamination System, will eventually be able to clean 80,000 masks a day per site and that each mask can be cleaned up to 20 times before losing effectiveness.

Hundreds of employees are involved, and thousands more are being hired, with many going through training to set up decontamination sites in New York; Seattle; Boston; Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Up to 50 boxes, containing thousands of masks, show up every day. The number of boxes is expected “to grow exponentially” as hospitals work out safe collection procedures, said Kevin Sayers, who is helping to oversee the West Jefferson operation. In early April, DeWine said that Battelle would decontaminate masks for free for two weeks.

Each mask is inspected before it is processed; roughly 10% are soiled or broken and cannot be decontaminated, according to Sayers.

As more sites start decontaminating masks and more hospitals participate, Sayers expects Battelle to start accepting deliveries all day and through the night. The organization hopes to win approval to expand its procedure to other types of personal protective equipment, such as face shields and surgical masks.

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