September 22, 2020

Cleaning and reusing hospital masks: Is it safe?

As California ramps up its purchase of protective gear for health care workers, the state also has set a back-up plan in motion: cleaning masks so they can be used again and again.

Face masks called N95 respirators are worn by doctors, nurses and other medical workers to filter out infectious droplets carrying the virus. They aren’t supposed to be reused.

But with shortages of personal protective equipment reported across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that hospitals may have to consider reusing these masks “as a crisis capacity strategy.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said today that the state, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be deploying new sterilization systems from Ohio-based defense contractor Battelle within the next week.

“It’s a technology that is designed to get on the ground and actually bring in a used N95 mask and do a sterilization and cleaning process that makes them basically new again,” Ghilarducci said.

But it’s not that simple, according to Amy Herr, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and David Rempel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

They warn about the potential for cross-contamination when sterilized masks are returned to hospitals. And if sterilized masks don’t find their way back to their original owners, they might not fit well enough to seal out infectious droplets.

“I wouldn’t call them clean masks, I would call them maybe cleaner masks,” Herr said. “They’re not as good as new.”

“Both of us hope that none of this ever has to be done, and that enough new masks come in that no hospital has to decontaminate any masks at all,” Rempel said.

Battelle’s decontamination system received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration at the end of March. It works by exposing masks to hydrogen peroxide vapor for more than two and a half hours to decontaminate them, and Battelle claims it can clean up to 80,000 masks in a day.

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