County gains access to mask decontamination system

Brianna Childers,Chad Frey
Cynthia Duarte, a processor for the decontamination team at Forbes Field Air Force Base, inputs data Thursday while teams work in the units behind her to decontaminate N95 masks. [Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal]

Harvey County now has access to the “Battelle Program,” a new state program in place to disinfect N95 masks — medical masks now at a premium as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harvey County Emergency Management director Gary Denny announced to the county commission on Tuesday that the county now has access to the program — an N95 mask decontamination system now in use in Kansas that is aimed at providing health care workers with used but disinfected masks.

“Currently in Harvey County, we have five agencies registered to use that,” Denny said. “One of those agencies is Harvey County. Those N95 masks that we generate in Harvey County, we may be able to send to the state, have them decontaminated and they can send those back.”

The systems are meant to assist states facing an N95 mask shortage brought on by the coronavirus.

“The understanding is that those respirators can go through the process about 20 times before they have met their life expectancy,” Denny said.

Denny said Harvey County has not yet sent any masks to the program — only that the county now has access to it.

“We continue to monitor our personal protective equipment, what is out in the field already across all of our health care partners, as well as how much they are using, just so we can keep our fingers on the pulse of what the needs are,” Denny said.

The process to decontaminate a mask is not quick, but it’s one that Battelle program manager Mark Curran assures is effective.

Battelle, a private nonprofit applied science and technology company, has partnered with FEMA to deploy 60 critical care decontamination systems throughout the country.

“We did a study a couple years ago that suggested that this process that we are implementing here and a number of places around the country was an effective way of dealing with these types of viruses,” Curran said. “Fast forward a couple of years and the pandemic hit, and some of our smart people got together and figured out a way to scale that up to a point you are seeing now.”

So far, 45 systems are operational in 35 states, with one of those sites located in Topeka at the Kansas Air National Guard.

Located inside the 190th Air Refueling Wing sits eight large containers that each serve a purpose in a sequential decontamination process.

The entire process can take up to 72 hours, Curran said, and begins by a Battelle technician logging inbound masks into a database.

In a separate container, technicians suit up in Level 4 personal protection equipment. That includes everything from Tyvek suits, face shields and ear protection to knee-high boots, two sets of gloves and an air filtration system that is worn like a belt.

Putting on PPE can take up to 45 minutes.

“We take great care in putting these PPE on,” Curran said.

Next, technicians begin the process of placing masks into four decontamination containers.

Masks are placed onto shelving units and grouped by the facility they came from. There are currently almost 400 health care systems in Kansas that have registered with Battelle.

Health care facilities have the option to indicate what department — such as the maternity ward or surgery wing — a set of masks came from.

The masks are in turn separated with that designation in mind. This step allows for masks to be returned to the appropriate department, Curran said.

Loading masks into a chamber can take about 20 minutes. Once completed, the container’s inner doors are closed and sealed with caulk and tape.

“There’s a big exhaust fan that draws air from the front to the back,” Curran said. “We are removing any contamination that might be occurring inside the chamber. Then we have a hydrogen peroxide generator that vaporizes the hydrogen peroxide, enters it into the chamber and that’s where the treatment comes from.”

It can take anywhere from two to four hours for one decontamination process to run its course, Curran said.

“The process is very sensitive to things like temperature outside, humidity outside,” Curran said.

A set of perfect conditions would allow for Battelle to decontaminate 10,000 masks a day per chamber load, but there are factors technicians continue to learn.

“We are learning as we go along that it sort of depends on things like the type of masks,” Curran said. “People hear N95 masks and they envision in their mind that’s one type of mask, but there’s more than one type of N95 mask. Some of them, for example, have a foam nose strip that goes across the bridge of the nose for comfort. Unfortunately, those nose strips act as sponges and they tend to hold onto the hydrogen peroxide. That increases the aeration time for us. But we don’t rush it. It takes as long as it takes.”

Once masks have completed the decontamination phase, the chamber is aerated, the door is unsealed and masks are unloaded.

Masks are bagged, double sealed and placed into clean cardboard packages, Curran said. The package is then decontaminated with 70% ethanol as an added precaution.

“The whole process has been very well quality controlled to make sure that there’s no exposure to anything that’s contaminated,” Curran said. “Anybody who is carrying our material, they know what they are carrying. Everything is appropriately labeled.”

Each decontaminated bag of masks is labeled with a site code, then shipped back to the original facility.

Curran said masks can be decontaminated up to 20 times.

Although the process is one that requires great care, it still has drawn concerns from the health care community.

Aware of the worries associated with Battelle’s decontamination process, Curran said he has confidence in the process.

“I’m a technical person, not a policy person,” Curran said. “From a technical perspective, we are certainly satisfied that the science is there, the facts are there. The FDA has signed off on it; otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

FEMA regional administrator Paul Taylor also voiced his confidence in the Battelle system.

“We realize that when we first start using a system like this that there’s a measure of trust that you need to build up in the system,” Taylor said. “I think we are doing that right now in Kansas. I think as people gain more trust in the system, we will be able to really be off and running and get this system up to full utilization.”

While there is no set timeline for how long Battelle will keep its system operational in Kansas and beyond, Curran said the ultimate goal is to provide “a little bit of relief in the near term in terms of the shortage of N95 masks and being able to recycle these.”