With the country's persistent shortage of N95 face masks, health care providers are looking for ways to clean and treat the masks to reuse them and protect doctors and nurses who are most at risk from COVID-19.
Duke University believes to have found a solution that uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate the masks.
The process uses special equipment to vaporize hydrogen peroxide, which can then infuse all layers of the mask to kill germs (including viruses) without degrading the mask material.
"This is a decontamination technology and method that we have been using in our biocontainment laboratory for years," said Scott Alderman, deputy director of the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, in a statement.
According to Matthew Stiegel, director of Duke's Department of Occupational Safety and Environmental Security, the university has proven to be effective and will use the technology in all three hospitals.
Ideally, hospitals could use fresh masks and would not have to try to decontaminate their masks, but these are not ideal times.
Duke's decision to use hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks is based on published studies conducted in 2016. However, this practice was not widespread as the industry was not exposed to bottlenecks. These previous studies also did not include fit tests – or resizing masks for individual wearers – after cleaning. Duke has now carried out this effectiveness test in the real world, the university said.
"The ability to reuse key N95 masks will improve the ability of hospitals to protect health care workers at the forefront during this critical N95 mask shortage," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, associate professor of medicine and specialist in infectious diseases.
Monte Brown, MD, vice president of health care at Duke University, said the Duke team is working to publicize the technology and make the protocols widely available. He said that several health systems and many pharmaceutical companies already have the necessary equipment, which is currently used in different ways, and that they could speed up operations to help their local hospitals.
"We could stand in front of our employees and be confident that we are using a proven decontamination method," said Brown. “It has been a proven method for years. This alone will not solve the problem, but if we and other masks can be reused once or twice, it would be a great advantage given the current bottlenecks. "