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University of Louisville aids in COVID-19 mask shortage

No-charge program allows up to 20 uses of scarce N95 respirators for health care and community organizations

Louisville, Ky.—Due to the N95 respirator being in critically short supply, the University of Louisville is offering a no-charge program to decontaminate the masks that protect health care workers and first responders from COVID-19.

UofL’s program is expected to boost the number of masks on hand for health care workers, first responders and other organizations in need of N95 respirators. 

“The ability to extend the life of our PPE eases the strain on access to a limited supply worldwide,” said Bob Van Burskirk, director of supply chain at UofL Health. “While our days-on-hand stock of PPE remains adequate, the safe reuse of select items ensures another level of safety for our front-line physicians and nurses.”

The N95 Decontamination Program is set to start next week and can sterilize up to 7,000 masks per day using vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP). It’s a process that is validated by the Battelle Memorial Institute to safely make masks reusable.

Typically, N95 masks are only supposed to be used one time but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to health care workers using one mask for more than one time. UofL says, the CDC does not object to methods that decontaminate single use masks due to the emergency circumstances made by COVID-19, if the decontamination method is proven effective. 

“When I started seeing the data on VHP, I said we need to activate on this,” Leslie Sherwood, D.V.M., assistant vice president for research services and director of Research Resources Facilities at UofL, said.

Vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) generator and room prepared for N95 respirator decontamination. Photo: University of Louisville

UofL’s device, called the Bioquell VHP generator, is one of fewer than 100 across the US that can purify N95 masks. The device vaporizes hydrogen peroxide destroying bacteria and viruses in the air and on surfaces. 

Cheri Hildreth, M.B.A., director of the UofL Department of Environmental Health and Safety, and Sherwood are leading the program. They based the it off of one made by Battelle in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, along with cues from colleagues who made a similar program at Duke University. 

More than 30 organizations and facilities from across Louisville, southern Indiana, Lexington and northern Kentucky have expressed interest in participating or applied on the program’s website.

Facilities working with the UofL program will be given site-specific collection containers for used N95 respirators. Those containers will be taken to the Kosair Charities Clinical and Translational Research building on UofL’s Health Sciences Center campus and it is there the masks will be placed in a negative pressure air flow room in the lab with wire shelving to be decontaminated. That room can hold 3,500–4,000 masks. 

Masks arranged for decontamination. Photo: University of Louisville

The used masks are arranged in a way so that all surface area is fully exposed to the air. It takes five to seven hours for the mask decontamination process.

UofL says the masks, once they have been decontaminated, are inspected for any damage, given a tally mark on the strap to show they have been decontaminated. The masks then go back to the same facility that collected them. Once a mask is decontaminated 20 times, it will be thrown away.

“When they are clean, we go through the quality assurance checks to make sure the elastic is not broken and there is no wear and tear,” said Steven Davison, D.V.M., assistant professor in Research Resources Facilities. “We have three rooms, so we can rotate groups of masks in each room, moving the VHP generator from one room to another.”

The room where the masks are decontaminated is also tested to guarantee the VHP reached levels adequate to kill the virus, this step takes an additional 24 hours. According to UofL the total process is around 48 hours. 

N95 respirator that has been decontaminated and received tally marks on the strap. Photo: University of Louisville

Davison said staff and UofL administrators have given their own time to set up the rooms, test the process and provide administrative support to create the program. 

A sufficient group of paid UofL employees, who chose to participate, and health science professional student volunteers will be working to keep the program going, according to Davison. Safeguards and protective equipment are in place to protect them. If the demand for the program grows, more staffing will be needed, according to UofL.

Sherwood said several individuals and UofL departments have collaborated to get the program started in a few short weeks, including the School of Medicine, Speed School of Engineering, which provided logistics, the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, led by Hildreth, and the Executive Vice President for Research and Innovation’s office. In that office, Kevyn Merten, Ph.D., associate vice president for research and innovation, has navigated the legal, fundraising and participant details needed to get the program up and running.

“Everyone that is involved in this really just wants to help the front-line health care providers,” Sherwood said.

This program was awarded $50,000 grant from One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund and the money will support operational costs. Hospitals and organizations participating in the program are not charged, so donations can be made to help pay the cost of equipment and supplies. 

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