As Coronavirus Looms, Mask Shortage Gives Rise to Promising Approach

  • Connexions
  • 2021-01-20
  • 1357

Facing a dire shortage of protective face masks for health care workers, administrators at the University of Nebraska Medical Center decided they had no choice.

Masks are certified for one-time use only. But on Thursday, the center began an experimental procedure to decontaminate its masks with ultraviolet light and reuse them. Administrators plan to use each mask for a week or longer.

To the knowledge of the program’s administrators, the medical center is the first to disinfect and reuse masks.

“We have talked with a lot of others around the country who are going after a similar approach,” said John Lowe, the medical center’s assistant vice chancellor for health security training and education, who designed the program.

But late Thursday night, the agency issued new guidance, saying that “as a last resort, it may be necessary” for hospitals to use masks that were not approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

That change would seem to mean it is now acceptable for hospitals to decontaminate and reuse masks during the coronavirus pandemic, said Shawn Gibbs, a professor of environmental health at Indiana University.

If that were not the case, he added, then many hospitals would find themselves in a tightening bind as gear shortages spread: “What is preferred — not using respirator protection equipment, or using a decontaminated respirator whose certification is voided?”

No one thinks reuse of face masks is ideal, and the practice may raise legal liability issues. But there seemed to be little choice.

Masks conform somewhat to the health care worker’s face, and a tight seal is necessary. So each health care worker’s mask is returned to its user after decontamination.

Health care workers write their names on their masks before they first use them. After they remove the masks for decontamination, they are placed in brown bags labeled with their names.

The bags are transported to a special room covered in a beige paint that reflects UV light. After the masks are treated, each one goes into a white bag with the health care worker’s name on it.

The procedure is experimental, and there are uncertainties.

For instance: How many times can a mask be reused? For now, staff members will use each mask for a week before disposing of it. But the medical center may decide to keep using the masks for 10 days, or even two weeks, Dr. Rupp said.

“Hopefully, that will at least buy us enough time to offer protection through this epidemic,” he added.

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