Decontamination process allows Houston area healthcare workers to reuse N95 masks amid PPE shortage

HOUSTON – Equipment set up in part of Houston’s NRG Arena is helping to service N95 masks for healthcare workers to reuse. Battelle Memorial Institute’s Critical Care Decontamination System has been operating in Hall A since May 1, the organization said.

Healthcare facilities ship the masks to the site. They go through a decontamination process and are then returned, said Erin Schultz, the Houston site lead.

“We can process them up to 20 times each,” she said.

Schultz said there are four chambers inside the hall and she explained how the process works.

“The hydrogen peroxide will condense on the mask and oxidize it and then that will kill the virus,” she said.

Ideally, workers would not reuse the masks. However, the coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on the supply of protective equipment, said John Clay, a research leader at Battelle.

“What we’re doing is rendering service for the U.S. Government and healthcare providers such that we can avoid shortages,” said Clay.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the equipment but some have concerns.

In July, the National Nurses United union called decontaminating and reusing the masks “unsafe” and said nurses were being used as guinea pigs for the practice.

“We do feel it’s very safe and we’ve developed a huge amount of data to support that,” Clay said in response.

The process was developed after the Ebola epidemic several years ago.

Clay said the federal government is paying the bill so there is no cost to the healthcare facilities for the service.

According to Battelle, the Houston location has processed more than 18,000 masks since May. The site is expected to stay open until September and possibly even longer, Clay said.