VCU Health has begun a pilot program to safely decontaminate N95 masks using equipment and a method developed by a team of VCU Health doctors and researchers.

With personal protective equipment in short supply, doctors and researchers at VCU Health have developed a process that can decontaminate masks so the health system can replenish its own supply.

VCU Health announced the breakthrough pilot program Thursday, allowing 12,000 N95 masks to be decontaminated each day - more than 10 times what’s currently available, according to a VCU news release. The advancement comes as the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Virginia continues to climb as state leaders scramble to make sure hospitals have enough PPE.

“We have to preserve what we have,” said Dr. Stephen Kates, the chairman of orthopaedic surgery at VCU Health, who helped develop the 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.”

The program can be replicated by other health systems, VCU Health said, adding that it plans to share its design and process with the University of Virginia and other hospitals across the state and country.

The decontamination process uses high-intensity ultraviolet light, according to the news release. Used masks are put in a paper bag and plastic bin for each unit and labeled with the name and employee number of who wore them. Once the unit’s bin is full, it’s sent to the decontamination facility housed in the former Museum of the Confederacy.

VCU said that its process allows the masks to be reused multiple times while other approved decontamination methods, including the use of alcohol or steam, can “compromise the integrity of the masks after one or two uses.”

“N95 masks are critical to the safety of those working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, the director of the VCU Health Infection Prevention Program, in a statement. “Using this decontamination method, we’re providing our team members increased access to [personal protective equipment] so they and our patients may remain safe during a time when PPE access is not always guaranteed.”

VCU Medical Center uses roughly 450 masks on a typical day, according to the news release, but with COVID-19 continuing its spread, that number is climbing, Kates said.

“Right now, we’re focused on implementing this method for heavy mask users such as those in the intensive care units, the emergency department and operating rooms,” Kates said in a statement.

Roughly 1,300 people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases are hospitalized, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association’s COVID-19 dashboard.

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