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To disinfect the masks, USA Health is using the Xenex robot, which emits pulsed UV-C light to prevent the pathogens from replicating while also damaging the cell wall, essentially sterilizing masks much in the same way the sun damages skin cells.

Published Apr 28th, 2020

By Lindsay Mott
lmott@health.southalabama.edu

To support efforts to manage the national shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) and to ensure the safety of employees, USA Health has adopted an innovative idea - using UV-C light to decontaminate N95 masks used by hospital staff in the fight against COVID-19.

“We have a very low infection rate among our healthcare workers,” said Michael Chang, MD, chief medical officer for USA Health. “We believe this is related to our rapid and aggressive efforts to minimize the exposure of both our patients and our healthcare workers. Screenings of everyone entering our facilities have been significant. I believe our universal masking policy, with appropriate levels of mask depending on the environment, is another reason we are in the position we are in. The effort to decontaminate N95 masks is another demonstration of how an academic health system can rapidly respond during a crisis.”

To disinfect the masks, USA Health is using the Xenex robot, which emits pulsed UV-C light to prevent the pathogens from replicating while also damaging the cell wall, essentially sterilizing masks much in the same way the sun damages skin cells, according to Josh Smithart, RN, BSN, CNOR, sterilization supervisor at USA Health University Hospital.

Smithart said that the idea of using UV-C light has been on his radar since the outbreak started. Knowing the extended use of PPE has risks, he began searching for options. He knew there was a critical need to disinfect masks without using harsh chemicals so the usefulness of the masks could be prolonged.

“It became very clear that UV-C was the way to go,” Smithart said. “We explored at least seven different studies that looked specifically at how effective UV-C is in destroying pathogens. In the studies, masks were deliberately inoculated and then were tested after treatment with very promising results.”

During the process, masks are collected daily from both University Hospital and Children’s & Women’s Hospital and taken to the decontamination room at University Hospital for sterilization. The masks are marked with the person’s name and date of first use, so that they can be returned to the same staff member each time. Before being disinfected with the light, masks are closely inspected for any damage – damaged masks are discarded.

After inspection, the mask is placed on what looks like a clothesline, and the UV light treats each side of the mask for five minutes. They are marked after each sterilization session as they can only go through a maximum of five cycles. The sterilization staff are spending four hours each day processing masks and are able to sterilize approximately 50 masks at a time.

“With N95 masks, it is critically important to have the correct size mask for each individual. The work of our sterilization team has allowed us to manage our limited supply of N95 masks and at the same time ensure that employees are protected with appropriately sized mask,” said Chase Labrato, health system director of materials management for USA Health. “Being able to decontaminate masks and reuse them has been a real game changer.”

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