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Nurses Renew Calls To Stop Cleaning, Reusing N95 Masks

N95 masks and nitrile gloves. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
N95 masks and nitrile gloves. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A new slate of tests by Mass General Brigham on the cleaning and reuse of N95 respirator masks has not eased the concerns of nursing associations, which renewed their calls Tuesday to stop the practice.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association and a national nurses' group said they still believe the practice is putting medical workers at risk.

"We nurses know from real-life experience that N95 respirators cannot be safely reused or ‘decontaminated,’ ” said Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United, in a statement.

The report by Mass General Brigham — which is more widely known by its original name Partners Healthcare — was shared with staff and found used masks still retained their 95% filtration capacity after five cleanings in the Battelle system. That process blasts the masks with vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean them.

However, the required tests to make sure the masks fit very tightly — critical to the safety of N95s — is still ongoing, according to the internal hospital report. So far, the "fit test" has passed the hospital group's standards after two cycles of cleaning.

The group said in its presentation, "Multiple cycles of decontamination do not appear to impact fit, but users are reminded that proper handling and storage is also important, and a seal check must be performed before every use."

The cleaning system, created and run by the Ohio contracting giant Battelle Memorial Institute, has been rolled out across the country under a $415 million federal contract. Battelle has said it stands by its own testing, and that it's safe to decontaminate and reuse masks up to 20 times.

"Battelle’s mask decontamination technology is based on proven, established scientific research. It was not a hasty process and continues to be verified by current, independent testing," the company's spokeswoman, Katy Delaney, said in a statement.

The nurse associations shared the findings of the hospital group with Richard Peltier, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst scientist, who has been studying the decontamination of masks. Before the coronavirus, these masks were meant to be used only once, then discarded. Peltier, in a statement, said the masks still need more independent testing.

“We would celebrate if these respirators continued to perform as designed after decontamination,” Peltier said. “But without data, we just don’t know."
In addition to safety concerns, some nurses have complained of side effects of wearing the sanitized masks. Complaints have included a chemical smell, dizziness, headaches and nausea.
The FDA has reiterated that new masks are preferred, and that sanitizing and reusing masks should be done only when new masks are unavailable.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration updated its emergency rules stating some masks should not be cleaned.

Patricia Noga, vice president for clinical affairs at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, recently said, “Protection of patients and caregivers continues to be the top priority for Massachusetts hospitals, and they remain vigilant in their pursuit of new personal protective equipment."

She said providers are "closely monitoring all Food and Drug Administration guidance and are reviewing their existing supplies of N95 masks to determine which are compatible with authorized decontamination systems.”

This article was originally published on June 16, 2020.

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Beth Healy Twitter Investigative Reporter
Beth Healy is an investigative reporter for WBUR.

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