Coronavirus N95 mask shortage prompts hospitals to decontaminate and reuse

A shortage of personal protective equipment with COVID-19 outbreak has some hospitals decontaminating and reusing supplies

With a shortage of medical masks across the country, some hospitals are now using equipment with ultraviolet light to decontaminate masks so they can be reused.

Nevada-based medical equipment company TMG Health Technologies received hundreds of orders from hospitals around the country in the past week for its Rapid Decontamination Systems, portable ultraviolet light machines used to disinfect medical instruments like stethoscopes in 30 seconds by killing viruses and bacteria on surfaces. Now, they’re being increasingly used to disinfect N95 masks amid the shortage of the masks and other personal protective equipment.

Hospitals are having to reuse medical face masks amid nationwide shortages. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

“We’ve been successful in decontaminating masks up to three times,” Sanford Green, president of TMG Health Technologies, told FOX Business Monday.

The machines, which fit up to eight masks, use UVC rays at specific wavelengths, which can kill viruses by destroying the molecular bonds that fuse DNA strands together.

“There is a limitation on the number of times it [the N95 mask] should be decontaminated simply because every time you decontaminate the mask, it impacts the filtration capacity," Green explained.

Doctors typically use a new N95 mask -- tight-fitting face-covers that filter out particles that could carry the coronavirus and other germs -- to treat each patient. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends wearing surgical masks, including the N95 mask once. However, as medical professionals struggle with shrinking supplies of personal protective equipment, doctors say using ultraviolet light to kill viruses as a decontamination method is an option.

(Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

“It [ultraviolet light] appears to damage the shell of the virus in a way that prevents it from infecting human cells,” Dr. Bob Morris, a Seattle-based environmental epidemiologist who has taught at Harvard University School of Public Health said. “We’re in desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures. If you do it right, you can reduce the amount of virus that’s active on that piece of gear.”

Hospitals have used ultraviolet light as a decontaminate for years. Particularly, UV rays have been used as a cleansing tool for patient rooms. A study from researchers at Columbia University in 2017 found that UVC light was capable of killing MRSA bacteria and when tested again a year later, it proved to eliminate the H1N1 virus, a type of influenza virus responsible for the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Swine Flu of 2009.

“We’re in desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures. If you do it right, you can reduce the amount of virus that’s active on that piece of gear.” 

- Dr. Bob Morris, a Seattle-based environmental epidemiologist

The University of Nebraska Medical Center started experimenting with UV-light to decontaminate masks last week, hanging used masks up in rooms with two ultraviolet light towers. Once they’re decontaminated, masks are returned to their original owners, enabling healthcare workers to wear them for up to a week longer.


“In normal times, these N95 respirators are used once and then discarded, and we just don’t have that luxury right now so these will allow us to use them two or three times, and we’re conducting assessments to see if we can use them more times than that,”  Dr. John Lowe, assistant vice chancellor for interprofessional health security training and education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said in a statement. “We’ve talked with colleagues around the country especially on the west coast and on the east coast and they’re already running out of masks. Taking these measures now before we’re at a point where we’re already out of masks is a critical measure for us."

President Donald Trump on Saturday suggested that healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients sanitize and reuse masks rather than “throwing away” masks amid supply shortages.


Many hospitals have already been forced to do so. Mary Washington Healthcare hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., is preserving the supply of its N95 medical masks by advising healthcare workers to store masks facedown in containers with the straps outside when they are not wearing them prompting them to “reuse the N95 until significantly contaminated or soiled.”

And New York City-based healthcare network Northwell Health confirmed to Business Insider it was advising staff to use one N95 mask for their entire shift and store the mask in a paper bag when not in use.


The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association wrote in a joint letter to President Trump on March 21 calling on the administration to “immediately use the Defense Production Act to increase the domestic production of medical supplies and equipment that hospitals, health systems, physicians, nurses and all front line providers so desperately need.”

Honeywell, a maker of medical masks, announced on Sunday it would ramp up the production of its N95 medical masks to produce millions more by expanding its manufacturing operation in Smithfield, R.I. and creating at least 500 jobs. The N95 masks will be delivered to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for use to support health, safety and emergency response workers.

Trump said on Sunday that clothing company Hanes was “retrofitting manufacturing capabilities in large sections of plants to produce masks.”