AHN Finds Way to Sterilize, Reuse N95 Masks

Instead of being used once, the process allows the scarce masks to be used three times.
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PHOTOS COURTESY AHN

As the number of COVID-19 infections rose in the United States and elsewhere, the supply of crucial N95 masks dwindled. Typically the masks, which protect health care workers from the virus, are discarded after one use. Now, the Allegheny Health Network is sterilizing the masks with the same method used to sterilize surgical equipment. The process began over the weekend, allowing most masks to be used a total of three times.

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“With masks and other kinds of personal protective equipment in short supply, AHN and Highmark Health have been working tirelessly to ensure that our patients are safe and that our clinical employees always have the protective equipment they need,” says Sricharan Chalikonda, chief medical operations officer for AHN. “Sometimes, that means finding new sources for those products. In this case, we have developed an outside-of-the-box approach to make more efficient use of the products we already have on hand.”

Because of the pandemic, AHN has postponed elective surgeries, freeing up the sterilization machines for other uses.

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Allegheny General Hospital and West Penn Hospital each will have two mask-sterilizing machines; the rest of AHN’s hospitals will have one. At full capacity, machines across the network could collectively recycle more than 6,000 masks per day.

AHN is the first health care organization in the region to recycle N-95 masks. It recently received approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its specific process of collecting, sterilizing and then redistributing the masks.

“In our fight against COVID-19, nurses and doctors are getting much of the credit, and deservedly so,” says Hope Waltenbaugh, AHN’s vice president of surgical services. “But central sterilization technicians and environmental services employees work extremely hard to keep our facilities, equipment and instruments clean, and they can be exposed to the same pathogens as our clinical caregivers. They are health care’s unsung heroes.”

AHN collaborated with Pittsburgh-based MSA Safety, a manufacturer of a variety of safety products, to test the performance of the respirators following the sterilization process.  Last month, MSA provided a shipment of N95 masks that were donated to various health care providers and first responders in the Pittsburgh area.

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