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Researchers at Duke University are decontaminating N95 masks so doctors can reuse them

As health facilities quickly run out of N95 masks, vital protective gear in the fight against Coronavirus, a team at Duke University has found a way to decontaminate used masks.

Researchers at Duke University are decontaminating N95 masks so doctors can reuse them
Image Source: Health Clinic Workers Train Staff For Dealing With Swine Flu Testing. OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 28. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Coronavirus epidemic, health facilities are quickly running out of the equipment they need in order to fight the hundreds of new patients who are being admitted. While some health workers are finding new and inventive ways to reuse their equipment or "hack" them so more patients can use them, others are simply turning new patients away. One of the pieces of equipment that are running short on supply is N95 masks, which are masks that cover half of the wearer's face and filter out the air they breathe. Some physicians have taken to reusing their N95 masks, which can be dangerous for both them as well as any patients they treat. Thankfully, researchers at Duke University have found a way to decontaminate them so health workers can reuse them, CNN reports.



Already, a team at the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory has decontaminated dozens of N95 masks safely without damaging them. This means one mask can now be re-worn several times, which could provide relief to numerous health facilities that are quickly running out of them. In addition to undertaking the decontamination of masks themselves, they have also published the step-by-step procedure so other hospitals can "follow their lead" and sanitize the masks themselves. The method, which makes use of vaporized hydrogen peroxide, is one that has been utilized by research labs for decades to decontaminate equipment, according to Wayne Thomann, director emeritus of the Duke Occupational & Environmental Safety Office.



The method, which the Duke team never thought they would have to use for face masks, can kill microbial contaminants that remain on the masks once they are worn. In order to decontaminate them, hospitals will need a closed facility to handle the hydrogen peroxide. The process has already been carried out at Duke Health hospital complexes and can, therefore, be completed at other hospitals as well. In one cycle, which lasts about four hours, the team can clean up to 500 masks. As research continues, the team hopes to expand this capacity. As per previous research, one mask can be re-worn and cleaned 30 to 50 times. However, Thomann and his crew at the biocontainment lab are still analyzing how often this can be done after treating patients with Coronavirus.



Though the decontamination procedure does not damage them or make them less effective, the number of times they can be sanitized after treating Coronavirus patients will probably be lower. Thomann stated, "It will certainly be less than 30, and we will be conservative to ensure performance and safety." In order to make sure the N95 masks are just as effective as they would have been if they were brand new, the team inspects all the masks for tears and makes sure they have not lost their shape. For a mask to be effective, it must fit snugly on the face and cover the entire mouth.



In the fight against COVID-19, N95 masks are essential. They fall under personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes other equipment like gloves, eye masks, and gowns. As the deadly virus is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets - that is, spit, coughs, and sneezes - PPE plays a vital role in ensuring health workers exposed to the virus on a daily basis do not contract it. Of course, the more health workers who fall ill, the fewer there are to treat patients with the disease. The decontamination, therefore, is a helpful way to fill the gap in supply. "The N95 respirator is the most appropriate respiratory protection for patient care personnel attending COVID-19 patients, particularly performing aerosol-producing procedures on those patients," Thomann affirmed. "Reprocessing helps us ensure they will have the best PPE to protect them."



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