Vet college decontamination system allows reuse of N95 masks

N95 respirator masks ready for decontamination at the veterinary college’s Center for One Health Research. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech

In the wake of the COVID‐19 pandemic, the rapid depletion of personal protective equipment (PPE) used in the care of patients presented serious health and safety risks for health care workers.

In response, a team of researchers, veterinarians, and animal care specialists at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine has deployed a decontamination system that allows human health care workers to reuse the scarce N95 respirator masks.

“We’re giving people on the front line of this pandemic a little peace of mind that they actually have the supplies they need to protect themselves while they are saving lives,” said Margie Lee, a medical microbiologist and head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at the veterinary college.

The decontamination system is housed on the Virginia Tech campus at the Center for One Health Research, a facility operated by the veterinary college in partnership with the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The system is helping to stretch supplies for health systems in the region, such as Carilion Clinic, the Roanoke-based nonprofit that comprises hundreds of clinics, hospitals, and specialist offices throughout Southwest Virginia.

Working closely with Carilion, the sterilizer’s manufacturer, and a team at Duke University that has used a similar system to sterilize PPE, Karen Hall, animal resource manager who led the deployment project, developed a decontamination protocol, which minimizes risk for workers and ensures that the N95 respirator masks are sterilized efficiently.

Used N95 respirator masks are gassed for 2.5 hours using concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to destroy bacteria, viruses and other contaminants, including the coronavirus. The system is able to sterilize up to 2,000 N95 respirators per 12-hour cycle. Although each mask can be cleaned up to 20 times without degrading its performance, its elastic band can withstand only three cycles. Thus, a mask is not cycled more than three times to preserve its ability to fit a user’s face effectively.

After being treated with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, biological indicators that are sterilized along with the masks are sent to the Virginia Tech Animal Laboratory Services, which tests the indicators to ensure that sterilization is complete. If no organisms grow, the respirator masks are considered safe for use by health care providers.

Having its own decontamination system has freed the veterinary college from needing to depend on other agencies, allowing greater control over the timing and transport of PPE. Moreover, the system will be of great help to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital as it continues to transition back to full services. Previously, PPE at the teaching hospital were disposed of after a single use, but now clinicians and technicians can reuse N95 respirator masks.


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