With demand for respiratory masks at an all-time high, hospitals across the country are considering actions once thought unthinkable. The reuse of protective equipment is controversial and, in any other circumstance, would be strongly discouraged. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced medical staff to take radical new steps as they attempt to safeguard patients and themselves against the virus.
According to the CDC, N95 and KN95 masks – the two most important respiratory items for medical staff – can now be reused provided they are adequately sterilized in-between applications. While this doesn’t solve the problem of rapidly dwindling PPE stock, it gives doctors some much needed breathing room.
Is It Safe To Reuse KN95 Face Masks?
The honest answer is it depends. There are effective ways to sterilize KN95 masks but the methods tend to be complex. Often, they require costly equipment that smaller clinics and hospitals may not have access too. Nevertheless, where such equipment is available, protective clothing can be cleaned and reused up to five times.
It means medical staff can focus more intently on patient care and spend less time hunting down PPE supplies. The result is faster responses, safer treatments and more people leaving ICU departments to start their recovery. As the pandemic progresses so too do the ingenious solutions generated by doctors.
There are reports autoclaving is now being recommended to hospitals in need of a safe sterilization method. Researchers say it’s one of the most effective because it leads to complete sterilization with no decline in a mask’s structural integrity. This is important as a major barrier to reuse is the fact intensive cleaning often damages masks.
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What Is Autoclaving and Does It Work?
Autoclaving is a sterilization process that utilizes heat, steam and pressure to neutralize microbes on a mask’s fabric surface. N95 or KN95 face masks are loaded into a sealed container that is subsequently heated to a temperature above 120 degrees centigrade. This kind of heat is intolerable for microbes. Then, using a specialized pump, the operator empties the sterilization chamber of air and replaces it with steam. This super-heated steam makes contact with every part of the mask.
Each KN95 mask is covered with a cloth bag before entering the sterilization container to ensure any microbes stay contained. As this bag is porous, it still allows for the steam to envelope and clean the fabric. The entire process takes around thirty minutes. When complete, the steam is sucked back out of the container. The operator begins a cooling process to return the mask to a safe temperature and ensure it thoroughly dries.
The autoclaving process – including cooling and drying – takes ninety minutes. As many as four hundred masks can be sterilized in a single cycle. So, this is an extremely efficient method. Plus, autoclaving requires equipment that the majority of medium to large scale hospitals already have. This makes it a promising new weapon in the fight against Covid-19.
Estimates say autoclaving could give a stock of five hundred KN95 masks the equivalent lifespan of 2,500 single-use masks. It’s no wonder doctors are cautiously excited about the potential of this clever procedure.