Nebraska hospital cleans medical masks with UV lights

Faced with impending gear shortages as the coronavirus spreads, this Nebraska hospital has found a way to clean surgical masks only meant to be used once.

Hospitals are low on medical supplies that protect them from COVID-19

“We are running low on surgical masks. We're running low on gowns, which we have for isolation rooms. We're running low on hand sanitizer and N95 masks are just nonexistent right now.”, Craig Enis, a nurse in Walnut, California, shares.

Usually, masks are only used once

Dr. John Lowe, assistant vice-chancellor at UNMC, tells Brut, “Generally, in normal times, these N95 respirator masks are used once and then discarded, and we just don’t have that luxury right now.” Using UV light to clean and disinfect N95 masks for reuse… That's the new method being tested by researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to address the mask shortage threatening the U.S. in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. He continues, “We’re having difficulty getting a new supply of those respirators, and we’re projecting that we might run out in the coming days or weeks. So to extend our supply, we’ve implemented a process to safely clean those so that our health care workers can wear them again. We’re using UV light to sterilize, or actually to disinfect those masks. Just like UV light isn’t great for our skin, right? It can cause skin cancer and sunburns. UV light damages cells to the point where cells can die. So, in the case of the virus, the UV light disrupts the DNA, the RNA of the virus and inactivates the virus so that it can’t infect anyone else. These will allow us to use them two or three times, and we’re conducting assessments to see if we can actually reuse them more times than that.”

Desperate times, desperate measures

For several years, American hospitals have used UV light to disinfect rooms and kill bacteria. The procedure established by Dr. Lowe uses a concentration of UV light that’s 3 times higher than what’s required to kill the virus. According to Dr. Lowe, other hospitals in the country are experimenting with “a similar approach.” Other studies have already been conducted into the decontamination of masks with bleach, with ethylene, and with steam. On March 17, 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published new recommendations online that authorize hospitals to reuse masks “as a last resort.” He concludes, “We’ve talked with colleagues around the country, especially on the West Coast and the East Coast, and they’re already running out of masks. So taking these measures now, before we’re at a point where we’re already out of masks, is a critical measure for us.”