Duke Health to Begin Reusing N95 masks

By Brian Ward

With coronavirus causing a global shortage of N95 masks, researchers at Duke Health this week announced a way to sterilize masks using aerosolized hydrogen peroxide. The gas doesn’t damage the mask material or change its fit, but kills off viruses and germs.

“The ability to reuse the crucial N95 masks will boost the hospitals’ ability to protect frontline health care workers during this time of critical shortages of N95 masks,” said Cameron Wolfe, MD, associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist, in a press release.

Duke Health plans to use the decontaminated masks in its three hospitals. Monte Brown, MD, vice president at Duke University Health System told the News & Observer that “the masks are hung loosely from racks in a 400-square-foot room and then misted with hydrogen peroxide vapor for about four hours.” There are no toxic byproducts from this.

At the moment, Duke Health is able to do this to 800 masks at a time.

“We only know what the facility can handle, not how all the other logistics will work,” Brown said in an interview. “It will depend on the whole cycle, from patient bedside to the facility and back again.”

The reuse of N95 masks is typically prohibited because of potential infection risk, but the global shortage and difficulty in manufacturing them has changed rules and spurred innovation. This method of mask decontamination was developed a few years ago by a different organization, but until COVID-19, it was considered unnecessary.

“We had never considered needing it for something like face masks,” said Matthew Stiegel, PhD, director of Duke Health’s Occupational and Environmental Safety Office, in a written statement. “But we’ve now proven that it works and will begin using the technology immediately in all three Duke Health hospitals.”