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Late last night, the Food and Drug Administration approved the broad use of a system to decontaminate mass amounts of personal protective equipment or PPE; that way, the equipment can be reused again and again by those working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. From member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, Paige Pfleger reports.
PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Hospitals around the country are running low on personal protective equipment, things like masks, goggles and face shields. The looming shortage puts health care workers at increased risk of catching COVID-19 from their patients. Battelle is an Ohio-based research company and wanted to try and solve that problem. It's publicly known for inventing everyday items like compact discs and barcodes and less known for working on chemical and biological defense systems for national security. Battelle says its decontamination system can clean 80,000 pieces of PPE at a time. Engineer Greg Kimmel built the system in retrofitted, 20-foot-long shipping containers that can be rushed to coronavirus hot spots.
GREG KIMMEL: So we basically built a portable bio lab that can be dropped anywhere and completely self-contained. So all you need to do is run power to it, and everything else it can just do on its own.
PFLEGER: The design was fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration after a lot of back-and-forth over the weekend. Early yesterday, the FDA approved the technology with conditions - only 10,000 pieces of equipment at a time and only in Ohio. That riled Ohio's governor Mike DeWine, who banged on his podium at yesterday's briefing, demanding broader use of the technology.
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MIKE DEWINE: We're frantically trying to get enough of these mask, and we have a solution, at least for part of the problem, in that we can clean 80,000 of these every single day. Free us. Let us go do it. Sometimes, you just have to say it that way to get things moving.
PFLEGER: So he called the president.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As soon as I heard from Mike today, I got involved. And the FDA is now involved, and we're trying to get a fast approval for the sterilization of masks.
PFLEGER: By 10 o'clock last night, the technology was authorized for nationwide distribution. One container is already en route to New York City. Over the next few weeks, others will arrive in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Here's how the system works. Hospitals send their used PPE to the closest decontamination setup. Battelle scientists don protective gear and carry it into the container. The first room is a small airlock, big enough for only a few people. The second is the decontamination chamber, a long space with metal racks lining the walls like a narrow aisle in the grocery store. Instead of food, the shelves will be stocked with used N95 masks. Once the unit is full, scientists will exit into the airlock, decontaminate themselves with ethanol, then tightly seal the chamber. Then they begin the decontamination process, pumping in vaporized hydrogen peroxide. Will Richter is the lead scientist on the project.
WILL RICHTER: We inject the vapor at the rear of the chamber, and then the fans, you know, ensure homogenous distribution. We then have plumbing running to the front, so it has to travel the entire length of that chamber.
PFLEGER: Richter says decontamination takes a few hours, and the entire process is complete in half a day. That includes loading the unit, decontaminating and packing up the cleaned PPE to be sent back to the hospitals. He says with this system, one mask can be reused up to 20 times.
For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus.
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