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UMass Tries Innovative Method To Clean N95 Masks: UV Light

A N95 respirator mask. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A N95 respirator mask. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Like most health care systems, UMass Memorial Medical Center has been struggling to procure enough N95 masks to help protect its health care providers from the coronavirus. So, this week the hospital started a new effort to clean workers' masks using ultraviolet light.

Once they are decontaminated, a hospital epidemiologist said, the masks can be re-used several times.

"The research supports this type of cleaning, so we decided to do a pilot program," said Dr. Richard Ellison, hospital epidemiologist at UMass Memorial. "Right now it's sort of a low-tech operation."

Ellison said health care workers put their names on a piece of tape, which they attach to their masks. Then, UMass hangs the masks on a fishing line inside a room with UV machines. The decontamination process takes about 10-15 minutes, Ellison said, and the masks can be worn about 10 times. The hospital is doing a pilot program now and expects to expand it.

UMass doctors got the idea from a report in The New York Times about staff at the University of Nebraska, who are using UV light to decontaminate masks, in a similar effort to preserve dwindling supplies.

The university said it was able to use the approach after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance last week, allowing hospital workers to use some masks that were not approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Although there is little research on the use of UV light to sterilize masks, hospitals already use UV light to decontaminate rooms after moving patients with some dangerous infections.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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