ATLANTA — A series of shipping containers nestled inside an undisclosed Atlanta building may hold the key to solving Georgia’s N95 mask shortage.
On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced a new system, able to decontaminate up to 80,000 masks at a time. The system, created by the non-profit research organization Battelle Memorial Institute, were tested on Tuesday and ready to start receiving masks on Wednesday.
Battelle has a long history working with the US military and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat chemical and biological hazards. It started research on how to decontaminate personal protective gear in 2002 and responded to an FDA request for how to clean and reuse N95 masks during a respiratory pandemic in 2015.
But it wasn’t until a family doctor in Ohio alerted her husband last month to the potential shortage of masks, that he remembered the research project. Building off that knowledge, Battelle was able in nine days to create a working system that would treat thousands of masks with a pressurized vapor of hydrogen peroxide.
“We’ve got agreements in place with over 150 different institutions and facilities [in Georgia] that can now take advantage of that,” said Matt Vaughan, the Senior VP of Contract Research. “First responders, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, dialysis centers.”
Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) says police, firefighters and masks used by those working at critical infrastructure such as wastewater plants, can also apply to use the service.
A $400 million federal grant is helping to provide the service and pay for shipping the masks to and from the cleaning site. The masks will come in a variety of ways, from couriers to FedEx.
Vaughan says the vapor is powerful enough to clean COVID-19 and any other contaminants that might have hitched a ride, but gentle enough not to change the shape or function of the mask. Battelle says masks can safely be decontaminated up to 20 times. They’ll be marked each time they go through the system.
Battelle has an office in Atlanta where volunteers have stepped up to work on the project. Vaughan says they’re prepared to staff three shifts a day if needed.
“We’re here to help and we’re confident we can provide a buffer for the nurses, the doctors and the first responders who are taking tremendous risk to help all of us stay safe. And we’re grateful for that," explained Vaughan.
He says there are about a dozen systems operating throughout the United States right now. Battelle is working with the FDA to approve methods to decontaminate other items in short supply like goggles and gowns. They hope to add face shields to the list of approved products next week.
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