Michigan State Researchers Explore Heat-Treating Masks For Healthcare Workers Fighting COVID-19

Apr 10, 2020

There are shortages of personal protective equipment across the country as healthcare workers everywhere try to combat the coronavirus, and Michigan is no exception. Cases have surged in the state.

The N95 mask is the CDC recommended mask to protect against the coronavirus, but they are in short supply. Michigan State University is exploring ways to make these masks reusable. Morning Edition Host Mary Ellen Pitney spoke with Dr. Jeff Dwyer from MSU Extension about the project.


Pitney: So let's start just by explaining what exactly you're doing.

Dwyer: Right. So as you said, the availability of N95 masks is absolutely critical for healthcare providers and for those that take care of and there just simply aren't enough of them. As others have done, we began exploring options for decontaminating those N95 masks. We have focused on a heat treatment approach that we know now is not only effective, but it's scalable; and so we're hopeful as soon as we get FDA approval through the emergency submission process that we can help many others to adopt this practice to assist local healthcare providers and hospitals. 

Pitney: So from start to finish, what does the protocol look like? Do you go to the hospital each night to pick up masks and then drop them off in the morning?

Dwyer: We're focused on actually doing the decontamination. And so that they have a process that they go through evaluating masks for holes or being soiled or other sorts of things in which cases they would be discarded, but a very specific process where they collect those masks from a particular floor. It is brought to us in a safe fashion. Our people are all trained in the handling of biohazards and we've developed a process where we can manage those masks on what they call the ‘dirty side’ of the process.

 

Those masks go through our process and they come out the clean side and they're individually bagged in, and sealed in, plastic bags. When those masks are initially collected, the user identifies that mask either with their initials or their signature, something identifiable so that when we then decontaminate that mask and it goes in a sealed plastic bag, and goes back to our hospital partner, and they're able to get that mask back to the floor or portion of the floor that it came from, and in fact back to the original user of that mask.

Pitney: Okay, so I'm sure that's to further cut down on the risk of contamination.

Dwyer: Well, it certainly, we think it does a number of things. One is it's an important part of the protocol because of the particular type of process we're using. We believe that it goes back to the original user, but also think of it as a regular human being. We'd rather get back our thing than somebody else's thing, right, no matter what's been done to make sure it's safe, but the other thing is a critical component in the utilization of N95 masks. Is that they’re fit and we think that we're adding a level of safety and comfort in the use of that mask by getting it back to the original user.

Pitney: This is WKAR we are speaking with Jeff Dwyer from MSU about plans to use ovens from the MSU Food Processing Innovation Center to decontaminate N95 masks for healthcare workers. These ovens, they're not like the ones that you find in your home, can you help us visualize what you're talking about?

Dwyer: Yes. So, the particular commercial oven we're using to develop this protocol is what's known as a spiral oven. So think of it as a big commercial oven, a lot of stainless steel, and typically we would be putting say, raw cookie dough or, or muffins ready to be cooked and our oven happens to have essentially a chain track that's 60 feet long and 12 inches wide, and it spirals through this oven at very tightly bound temperatures and humidity and fan control and all of those things and then it comes out after a prescribed period of time at a certain temperature.

 

If it's a cookie or if it's a mask, a decontaminated mask. Once we get this protocol in place, while we think this particular style of oven is particularly effective, we don't think it needs to be exclusive to this style of oven.

Pitney: So can these ovens be safely used again for their intended purposes, they weren't meant to decontaminate lab equipment one day and cook food the next.

Dwyer: Right and in fact, they probably won't go from decontaminating mass to cooking food the next day. But, we are putting together a protocol that would likely take several days for people to be certain that these ovens are put back to their original condition, and then that has to do with our understanding and research about the lifetime of the virus. It also has to do with sterilization procedures that we will recommend then that people will follow. Certainly, we will in our facility. We know that these ovens will be able to go back to their original and intended purpose.

 

I would like to say if I may, that like so many things in life, this is not something that you should do at home. And so even when our protocol is approved and is widely available, it is not the case that people should simply set their oven to the temperature that we suggest for the time that we suggest and assume that that will work.

Pitney: Well. Jeff Dwyer, thank you so much for being here.

Dwyer: Thank you very much and we appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.