VCU Health innovates decontamination process for N95 mask shortage

Experts from VCU Health and VCU Ventures researched, designed and constructed a process that can sterilize 12,000 N95 masks per day, approximately 12 times the number of masks VCU Health currently uses daily.

Virginia Commonwealth University Health System has begun a pilot program to safely decontaminate N95 masks using equipment and a method developed by VCU Health and VCU Ventures. As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased demand for N95 masks, this independently developed method of decontaminating and reusing masks allows VCU Health to replenish its own supply, providing the equipment necessary to keep its employees safe.

Among the most essential personal protective equipment used by health care workers, the N95 respirator forms a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth and is 95% effective in preventing droplet penetration. VCU’s decontamination process uses high-intensity ultraviolet light, an effective means of sterilizing hospital environments such as patient rooms and operating rooms. 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 near VCU Medical Center.

While other approved methods of decontamination for the masks — such as using alcohol or steam — can work, they can also compromise the integrity of the masks after one or two uses. VCU’s process makes the masks reusable multiple times. Additionally, the process can be easily implemented by other institutions.

“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.”

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