UMass Amherst scientist testing reusability of protective masks amid nationwide shortage

A scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is testing to see if the masks medical professionals wear to protect themselves from coronavirus can be used more than once, as hospitals across the nation struggle with severe shortages in protective equipment.

“As an environmental health scientist, I must pivot to issues that are most impactful for public health,” Dr. Richard Peltier, an associate professor at the university’s School of Public Health, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Serving the public’s interest is at the core of our university’s mission. It’s also the right thing to do.”

According to UMass Amherst, Peltier on Monday re-purposed the aerosol laboratory he typically uses to study how poor air quality affects human health in order to investigate N95 masks, which are designed to be thrown away after one use.

Using “state-of-the-art” pollution instruments and a mannequin head, Peltier is measuring whether microscopic, infectious particles can pass through the masks after they have been sterilized, according to UMass Amherst.

If he proves the masks can be reused, Peltier said the discovery would allow medical professionals to wear them multiple times a day and “dramatically reduce the chance that they become infected.”

“Face masks can only be reused after they are sterilized, but whether they continue to work as designed is not yet known,” Peltier said, adding that the initial results from his test are expected by the end of the week. “I think it’s going to work the way we hope it will work, but I don’t have the evidence in hand just yet to support it.”

As the coronavirus outbreak has spread, hospitals and health care centers across Massachusetts have reported shortages of personal protective equipment, which has forced medical workers to conserve masks and the state to triage its limited supply out to those most in need.

“Hospitals have seen severe shortages in the availability of personal protective equipment from their vendors,” Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of the division of emergency preparedness for Massachusetts General Hospital, said earlier this month. “It started with N95 respirators almost immediately in January and has expanded to include gowns, gloves, eye protection.”

In fact, the equipment shortages have become so severe across the country that some volunteers have begun 3D printing masks, while others have taken to sewing them by hand.

“Everyone’s on sort of conservation,” Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said earlier this month.

Peltier has partnered with Dr. Brian Hollenbeck, chief of infectious disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, to conduct the study, the university reports. Hollenbeck could not be reached for comment.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the “N95” designation means that the mask blocks at least 95% of very small test particles, but does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.

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