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NEW YORK — As the supply of protective masks runs dry at hospitals around the country due to an influx of new COVID-19 patients, doctors and nurses are resorting to some unconventional, and unproven, methods to make their masks last longer.
“We’re literally just spraying it with alcohol,” a medical resident at Elmhurst Hospital, one of the hardest-hit in New York City, told VICE News. “Or wiping it with a Clorox wipe, which is not optimal.”
The air-filtering N95 respirators that medical workers use to keep themselves safe while treating infected patients are meant to be single-use. But at some of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York City, doctors and nurses told VICE News they’re using the same masks for up to two weeks at a time, treating dozens of patients using the same equipment.
“We get one N95 until it becomes deformed and doesn't fit our face anymore,” said the resident at Elmhurst, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity.
As they try to stretch the life of their protective equipment far beyond its intended use, doctors and nurses said they’re disinfecting masks with alcohol or specialized UV lights to try to kill any traces of the virus. But those methods can be ineffective or even dangerous because they can degrade the mask -- and potentially turn the wearer into someone who's spreading the disease.
“What we're terrified of is that I can walk into a patient's room with the wrong protection. Now I'm exposed. I'm going to walk into another patient right next door,” said a nurse in Los Angeles, who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity. “I can shed the virus to them without me having any symptoms at all. That is the antithesis of why we came here.”
Private companies are looking to get involved too. In a LinkedIn blog post published Tuesday, Mike Roman, the CEO of 3M, the largest manufacturer of N95 masks, said they are “collaborating with several sterilization companies to find a way for hospitals to safely clean, reuse, and extend the life of these respirators.”
But until a reliable method hits the market, hospitals like the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the UMass Memorial Medical Center have begun experimenting with sterilizing masks using UV light.
In each facility, workers write their name on their masks, place them in a brown paper bag and hand them in after a shift. The masks are then placed under an ultraviolet germicidal light, the same kind hospitals use to decontaminate a room after a virus-infected patient has been there.
But the process is experimental. The UV light slightly degrades the mask, making it less effective at keeping out airborne particles, according to a 2015 CDC study. Doing the same disinfection over and over can gradually break down the masks, which makes them dangerous to use.
Peter Tsai, the inventor of the process used to make the material in the masks, told VICE News that the UV method is risky for that very reason. He also said that using alcohol to disinfect the masks should be out of the question. Each mask has an electrostatic charge that attracts and traps particles, but alcohol penetrates the fibers and erases that charge.
Instead, Tsai said he’s researching blasting masks with temperatures above 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes at a time, which he believes could kill the virus while maintaining the structural integrity of the masks. He said his research will be published later this week.
Originally, the federal government didn’t suggest masks be sanitized and reused, but since the shortage has dragged on as the pandemic has worsened, they’ve relaxed regulations. The FDA gave its stamp of approval Saturday to a system that uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide to disinfect N95s. It’s already in use in Ohio, and more healthcare systems signed up to use it this week.
Even President Donald Trump celebrated the new mask-cleaning methods. “I’ve been asking, ‘Why are we throwing these masks away?’” he said during his daily coronavirus briefing on Monday.
Coping with massive shortages, hospitals see reusing masks as more of a necessity than an innovation. Multiple nurses and doctors told VICE News that the protective requirements for front-line medical workers — like using N95s for all infectious diseases and disposing of them after each patient — are being relaxed because there isn’t enough protective equipment to keep them safe.
“I think that the recommendations are definitely being watered down,” the resident in New York City said. “But, you know, at the same time, it's like if we don't have the supplies, what are we going to do?”
In the meantime, healthcare workers are half-joking about sanitizing their masks in their ovens at home. It’s not clear that this works, but without a ready supply of mask, doctors have little choice but to give it a try.
Doctors and nurses have already fallen ill, in part due to a lack of protective equipment. Half of the intensive-care staff at Columbia University Irving Medical in New York City, which has about 5% of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, have become infected, according to the New York Times. Two nurses in the city's hospitals have died.
Outside New York, the same problems are beginning to emerge. A nurse in Miami just died after contracting coronavirus this week.
The situation is so dire that doctors are calling for mask donations on social media, and the resident at Elmhurst spent two hours during a recent shift ferrying surgical masks and scrub caps from another hospital. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly criticized the federal government for not stepping in to help his state secure medical supplies.
“Obviously no one wants to spray down their N95s every day and reuse PPE [personal protective equipment], but until we receive government support and safety of healthcare workers becomes a priority, we have no choice,” the resident said. “The hospitals simply don’t have the supplies.”
Cover: March 26, 2020: During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, 3M N95 masks and other personal protective equipment have become scarce. Prentice C. James/CSM(Credit Image: © Prentice C. James/CSM via ZUMA Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)