BLACKSBURG — A new facility on Virginia Tech’s campus is taking aim at the N95 mask shortage that hampered medical efforts earlier in the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and emergency services officials formally unveiled an N95 mask decontamination station set up in a repurposed Marching Virginians Center by Battelle, the Ohio-based science and technology development nonprofit. The station will let masks be cleaned and returned to care providers for reuse up to 20 times, according to a news release from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Griffith noted that Southwest Virginia and West Virginia — the primary areas to be served by the new facility — have experienced relatively few COVID-19 deaths. Patients have not packed hospitals like in some parts of the United States. But with the new facility, Griffith added, “should we have a surge, we’ll be in a much better position to not overwhelm our health care system.”

Behind a tarp-covered chain link fence, the previously open-air band shelter was wrapped in plastic walls to house four decontamination units that looked like cargo shipping containers. Visible through a narrow window on each unit’s door were rows of shelves.

Starting Monday, the shelves are to be covered with masks, then the units sealed and filled with sterilizing hydrogen peroxide mist, said Christian Williams, Battelle’s site lead for the project.

The facility can decontaminate 80,000 N95 masks per day, the statement from Northam’s office said. It is one of three Battelle decontamination operations being set up in Virginia, and among 60 that Battelle is supplying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to locate around the country.

There is no cost to Virginia for the first six months of decontamination service, Northam’s statement said.

Decontamination is being provided free to medical care providers and is supported by federal funding, Battelle Senior Account Supervisor Rose Rankin wrote in an email.

Battelle does not identify who has signed up for the service but a total of 58 hospitals are under contract in Virginia, Rankin wrote.

Carilion Clinic plans to work with Battelle, spokeswoman Hannah Curtis wrote in an email. “We have been doing in-house … decontamination using UV light and vaporized hydrogen peroxide, and this resource will allow us to build on those efforts. We appreciate the support of both the state and federal governments for bringing this resource to our region,” she wrote.

A LewisGale spokeswoman could not be immediately contacted Friday about whether her hospital system plans to send used masks to Blacksburg.

Williams said Friday that the decontamination facility heats a solution of 35% hydrogen peroxide to produce a mist that destroys viruses and bacteria. In the sterilization units, the mist condenses on the masks, with a 4 ½-hour contact time. It takes another two hours for the hydrogen peroxide to dissipate, Williams said.

The sterilization units’ vents pass through filters and there should be no environmental impact from the facility, Williams said.

The setup mirrors standard procedures for sterilizing laboratory equipment, but hydrogen peroxide mist has not been much used for cleaning N95 masks, Williams said.

The masks are designed to be used, then discarded for safety.

In 2016, Battelle did a study for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that showed N95 masks would stand up to the hydrogen peroxide decontamination, Williams said. That study got a new look this year, as COVID-19 spread and many hospitals and first-responders ran out of protective masks, he said.

Battelle now is looking at whether the method can reliably sterilize other forms of personal protective equipment besides masks, Williams said.

The Blacksburg site is to be jointly operated by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Northam’s statement said. The other two Virginia sites are in Chesterfield County and Newport News.

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