Duke Health announced on Thursday that its researchers had found a way to decontaminate N95 respirator masks and make them reusable, a breakthrough that could have far-reaching ramifications for the doctors and nurses on the frontlines of treating those afflicted with COVID-19. 

Using “existing vaporized hydrogen peroxide methods,” Duke’s press release said, the “decontamination process should keep a significant number of N95 masks in use at Duke University Hospital as well as Duke Regional and Duke Raleigh hospitals, easing some of the shortage and curbing the need for other alternatives using unproven decontamination techniques.”

Hospitals in areas affected by coronavirus outbreaks are already seeing critical shortfalls of the masks, which protect doctors and nurses from contracting coronavirus from their patients. (As the INDY reported in this week’s paper, a Morrisville company allegedly tried to sell Duke a bulk shipment of masks at more than four times the normal price.) The problem was so acute that earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines telling health care professionals that they could use less effective surgical masks in lower-risk situations while prioritizing the N95 masks for “aerosol-generating procedures.” Last week, the CDC went further, telling medical workers to wear bandannas or scarfs if no masks were available. 

The N95 masks aren’t expensive. They cost about 75 cents apiece to make. But there are simply not enough of them to keep up with demand, and they’re not easy to make. Fighting the coronavirus will require an estimated 3.5 billion N95 masks. The U.S. simply doesn’t have them. 

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Farhad Manjoo explained why there’s such a shortfall: 

“In 2006, Congress approved funds to add protective gear to a national strategic stockpile—among other things, the stockpile collected 52 million surgical face masks and 104 million N95 respirator masks.

“But about 100 million masks in the stockpile were deployed in 2009 in the fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic, and the government never bothered to replace them. This month, Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, testified that there are only about 40 million masks in the stockpile—around 1 percent of the projected national need.

“As the coronavirus began to spread in China early this year, a global shortage of protective equipment began to look inevitable. But by then it was too late for the American government to do much about the problem. Two decades ago, most hospital protective gear was made domestically. But like much of the rest of the apparel and consumer products business, face mask manufacturing has since shifted nearly entirely overseas. …

“Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper—because their ‘just-in-time’ supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency.”

Which is to say: We’re running out of the ones we have, and we don’t have a way to get more soon. And that’s why being able to reuse existing masks could be a game-changer for hospitals that are already being overwhelmed by COVID-19. 

On Tuesday night, a nurse in New York City died after contracting the coronavirus. Staffers blamed a lack of personal protective equipment, including masks. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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2 replies on “Duke Researchers Find Way to Decontaminate and Reuse N95 Masks, Possibly Alleviating Critical Shortfall”

  1. put everything into your convection oven and set it on 155 degrees… 30 minutes later… dead bugs

  2. Article did not mention how they are actually decontaminating the masks… please print addendum

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