Supplies of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are dwindling as health care systems confront the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Monument Health in South Dakota has devised an innovative way to sterilize and reuse N95 respirators.
Using ultraviolet UVC light towers that traditionally are used at Rapid City Hospital to decontaminate patient rooms, Monument Health has adapted the devices to sterilize as many as 1,900 N95 masks per day. Doug Koch, Vice President of Operations for Monument Health Rapid City Hospital, said about 7 1/2 minutes of exposure to UVC light will disinfect 20 masks at a time. Each respirator mask can be sterilized with UVC light as many as five times.
“This dramatically improves our ability to protect the front-line caregivers taking care of our patients,” Koch said. “We’re using technology we already have, and we’re dramatically extending our use of N95 masks. We are rolling out the same process at our Monument Health Spearfish Hospital, and we will soon be supporting all Monument Health hospitals.”
Angie Bohling, Manager of Surgical Services, and Peggy O’Sullivan, Director of Surgical Services at Rapid City Hospital rolled out the new system on Wednesday, April 1, just six days after the project began. With help from Registered Nurse Denise Wallace, they put together a system for picking up and delivering masks to the various departments. They also prepared tip sheets for caregivers and mask managers to ensure the safety needs of caregivers are met. “On the floors where this has been introduced, everyone has been very supportive,” Bohling said. “They have good questions and quality feedback on how to continually improve the process.”
Dr. Daniel Petereit, Radiation Oncologist at the John T. Vucurevich Cancer Care Institute, said the Rapid City Hospital project has drawn interest from the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other organizations involved in meeting the urgent need for sterilizing PPEs in medical care. Radiation oncologists and medical physicists are well-versed on confirming radiation dosage and working with potentially hazardous materials.
“We can help others get their UVC sterilization up and running,” he said. “We’re ahead of the game on this.”
Dr. Petereit and James McKee, Physicist and Radiation Safety Officer at the Cancer Care Institute, have been helping the Monument Health team verify that the UVC light emitted by the towers is sufficient to kill the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19.
They have been working with Dr. Emily Dunn, a South Dakota native and former Petereit student who is now practicing in Eugene, Ore., to ensure the UVC lights are killing COVID-19. Petereit said their work is based on the research from Dr. John Lowe at the University of Nebraska. “We have also been working with our former physicist, Dr. Richard Crilly, who is at Oregon Health & Science University, and has formed research on UVC,” Dr. Petereit said.
The UVC towers are placed eight feet apart, and 20 masks are hung on racks midway between the towers. UV meters and test strips have been ordered, but for now the amount of exposure is based on calculations, McKee said. The team is likely giving higher-than-needed dosage. “It’s better to err on the side of caution,” he said.
“This has been a phenomenal undertaking from Monument Health to expedite this sterilization process that will protect both healthcare providers and patients,” Dr. Petereit said. “We are pleased to be part of the team that is helping to address the current pandemic. ”