UTMB: Single-Use Masks Can be Disinfected, Reused

Personal protective equipment, and in particular masks, have been a topic of much concern for front-line health care workers and first responders dealing with spread of the new coronavirus. The global spread of the disease has strained supplies and disrupted supply chain, making the needed masks harder to come by.

However, researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have found a way to disinfect single-use surgical masks and N95 filtering facepiece respirators, allowing health care workers to reuse these lifesaving piece of equipment. The research team published their results in Applied Biosafety: Journal of ABSA International.

“PPE shortage can pose a serious threat to healthcare workers, first responders, researchers and the public, so we decided to see if by using tools already available in most hospitals and labs, masks could be cleaned, decontaminated and reused,” said Miguel Grimaldo, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Director of Institutional Biocontainment Resources at UTMB.

Medical grade filtering facepiece respirators, also known as N95 masks, are an essential form of personal protective equipment that can help limit a doctor or nurses’ exposure to pathogens transmitted by droplets and aerosols. Hospitals have had to be judicious in the use of the masks as the pandemic wears on. Previous studies have looked at how to decontaminate and reuse masks, but most of the proposed techniques are labor-intensive and require specialized equipment.

Grimaldo and his team of scientists tested three different kinds of N95 masks and two types of surgical masks. To clean the masks, the team used an autoclave, a machine found in most hospitals and laboratories that sterilizes equipment .

The researchers found that they were able to decontaminate two of the three N95 mask types tested and both surgical masks up to three times using moist steam sterilization in an autoclave without significantly reducing their effectiveness. Masks were tested for filtration function and fit. Even after the third cleaning, the masks were still found to be 99 percent as effective as new, unused masks, the team said in their paper. The team’s method was effective against viruses and bacteria, researchers said.

“The lack of masks and other protective equipment can place health care workers, first responders, and researchers at great risk,” Grimaldo said. “Hopefully, with this information, hospitals and other institutions will be able to disinfect and reuse some of their masks and make their supplies last a little longer as we all continue to fight this disease.”

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