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Nurses demand better protective gear as new mask sterilization system arrives in Washington

The company says FDA-approved technology can decontaminate 80,000 masks a day. But nurses say they need more gear and new masks.

TACOMA, Wash. — Nurses in Washington and across the nation are protesting the shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals. 

At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, a small group of healthcare workers gathered outside the hospital on their breaks. Some wore masks and held signs that read “Trump, where is my PPE?”

Desiree Castillo, a care assistant at St. Joseph’s said a mask shortage is putting her and other healthcare workers at risk of contracting COVID-19 on a daily basis. Castillo said she and other healthcare workers receive one mask to wear all day during 12-hour shifts.

“We’re not being safe. We’re not being protected,” said Castillo. “We have to go home to our families. That’s what’s scary about it.”

Ohio-based company Battelle announced the launch of a large-scale mask sterilization system for Camp Murray near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County. 

The massive decontamination system can sterilize around 80,000 N95 respirator masks per day so they can be reused by health care workers on the front lines. 

RELATED: New Pierce County system can sterilize 80,000 N95 masks a day

Battelle is trying to address the mask shortage with new technology stored in high-tech shipping containers. The decontamination process is now FDA-approved. The masks are gassed with vapor-phased hydrogen peroxide for two-and-a-half hours and can then be shipped back to hospitals and reused.

“That hydrogen peroxide will react with any microorganisms or pathogens that might be on that mask and kill them so they don’t cause harm to the wearers,” said Dr. Justin Sanchez of the Battelle Memorial Institute. 

Dr. Sanchez said currently, Battelle is only working with Kaiser Permanente in Washington, but he expected demand to increase.

Castillo said even though the technology is FDA-approved, she and other healthcare workers remain skeptical about reusing equipment.

“We’re not 100 percent sure that it’s going to protect us to recycle masks, so I don’t feel safe with it,” she said. “I would like to have a new mask.”

Dr. Sanchez said the process had undergone extensive studies and reviews before being approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We also do tests of those masks that go through the system to ensure that they’re free of pathogens,” he said. “We have multiple layers of confirmation as well as safety protocols in place.”

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