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Desperate for more N95 masks, researchers test decontamination measures

One of the most important pieces of safety gear for health care workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the N95 mask, designed to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles. But the surge of patients with the highly contagious disease has meant way more demand than supply. Now, scientists are exploring whether it’s possible to decontaminate and reuse the essential coverings. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a look at what some hospitals hope could be a stopgap solution to shortage of a critical piece of protection for those heroes on the front lines. They're N95 masks.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    For health care professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, masks like this, called an N95, are essential equipment.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    The overall situation is terrifying. This is the closest thing I have done to going to war.

  • John Yang:

    Sidney Longwell is an emergency room physician at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    The patients that we are seeing are a threat to us. If you're going to go into somewhere where your someone's coughing or you're putting a tube down someone's throat with, you need a shield for your eyes, you need goggles, an N95, as a basic minimum.

  • John Yang:

    The virus has spread rapidly in New Orleans. Like the rest of the country, the city has a shortage of N95 masks. They're designed to block 95 percent of airborne particles and droplets that can carry the coronavirus.

    Before, doctors and nurses would use a new disposable mask for each new patient. And now?

  • Sidney Longwell:

    We're issued an N95 in the morning, and you do your best to protect it.

  • John Yang:

    When that practice began, Longwell started taking his masks home for a personal recycling program.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    That's oldest, and working way around to newest.

  • John Yang:

    He sets them out on a table for at least seven days, beyond what's believed to be the virus' lifespan.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    This is our version of the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to stay in the game. That's why I'm recycling here, so that, if the supply chain's cut, I can at least continue to work for a couple of weeks, before I would have an issue.

  • John Yang:

    Now Tulane Medical Center and hospitals on Long Island, Boston and other cities have developed official recycling programs.

  • Angie Birnbaum:

    We're in complete crisis mode.

  • John Yang:

    Angie Birnbaum is Tulane's director of biosafety.

  • Angie Birnbaum:

    As a biosafety professional, I never thought that I'd be in a situation where we're actually questioning how to decontaminate N95 masks. But this is where we are during this pandemic.

  • John Yang:

    Tulane's program, which is awaiting government approval, uses a technique developed by Battelle Memorial Institute, a scientific research nonprofit.

    The Battelle system, which was approved recently for emergency use, treats used masks with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, which has been employed for years to sterilize sensitive equipment.

  • Angie Birnbaum:

    Vaporous hydrogen peroxide is a great decontaminate, because it doesn't leave hazardous residues behind. You will basically have a nice sterilized piece of equipment that can be reused by our health care providers.

  • John Yang:

    As a test of how effectively the system decontaminates, Tulane researchers add hard-to-kill microorganisms to the masks before the process. If those are eliminated by the vaporized hydrogen peroxide, they reason, so is the coronavirus.

    Not everyone is convinced. In a statement, the executive director of National Nurses United, the biggest union of registered nurses, said: "There is no validated scientific evidence that multiple reuse or decontamination of N95 respiratory masks is safe and will protect a health care worker."

    The Food and Drug Administration's letter approving the Battelle system for emergency use said its known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks.

    And the National Institutes of Health said the results of its study indicate that N95 respirators can be decontaminated and reused in times of shortage for up to three times with vaporized hydrogen peroxide.

    If it is successful, the system would effectively expand the supply of usable masks. And it just could keep physicians like Sidney Longwell on the front lines.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    When this started, and we were trying to figure out at what point we would tap out and say, if it gets to this point, I don't feel safe coming to work?

    An adequate respirator is where we all drew the line. I won't feel safe going into a room without an N95.

  • John Yang:

    He says he's more concerned about his family than about himself. His father died of non-COVID-19 causes late last month.

  • Sidney Longwell:

    The hardest thing for me about COVID so far has been not being to be around my mom. I'm literally a biological threat to my mom. I haven't been able to go to Baton Rouge to support my mom. And that sucks.

    Also, like, I have had a few patients die, and that's, like…

  • John Yang:

    Protecting loved ones, protecting patients, protecting themselves, the balancing act facing front-line health care workers across the country.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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