COLUMBUS, Ohio (September 1, 2020)—Early this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projected that health care workers would need 300 million N95 respirator masks per month to deal with the coronavirus, and 3.5 billion total during the pandemic. Yet the national stockpile held just 12 million, despite two decades of warnings. It’s as if the country readied for drought by saving a case of Evian.
Prompted by worries of a potential shortage, the Food and Drug Administration contracted Battelle in 2014 to study the decontamination and reuse of disposable N95s. The research organization investigated using vaporized hydrogen peroxide and found that its method—eventually known as the Critical Care Decontamination System, or CCDS—could clean masks up to 20 times without compromising filter efficiency or fit. Completed in 2016, the research was shelved for a time of need.
On March 13, Dr. Laurie Hommema was alarmed when her OhioHealth colleagues described how even a small surge of COVID-19 patients would deplete masks and other personal protective equipment, the scenario experts had warned about for years. Hommema, the medical director of well-being, mentioned her concern to her husband, Kevin, a Battelle engineer. He told her about the FDA study, which was led by his co-worker Will Richter. Within a week, Richter and his team had rigged a scaled-up version of their system into shipping containers, and OhioHealth had sent around 1,000 masks to test it.
Battelle was already pivoting many of its resources to help with the pandemic, says CEO Lou Von Thaer. Researchers and engineers dove into several projects, including a study to test how long the virus could survive on library books, the development of a sensor that can detect it in the air and a joint effort with Ohio State to ramp up testing. But no other project received the hype and scrutiny of CCDS.
The system vaporizes a hydrogen peroxide solution and pumps the gas into the sealed containers, where masks are hung by the hundreds or thousands. Once decontaminated, they’re aerated and returned to medical centers. The FDA gave emergency approval on March 28, initially for cleaning 10,000 masks daily and then for widespread use one day later. It was quickly hailed as a breakthrough.
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