Canadian hospitals prepare to sterilize, re-use N95 masks if supplies dwindle

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Some Canadian hospitals are collecting used N95 masks so that they can be decontaminated and worn again should new ones become impossible to find amid a global scramble for personal protective equipment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: Boxes of N95 protective masks for use by medical field personnel are seen at a New York State emergency operations incident command center during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

The issue has become more pressing in Canada after the United States blocked some exports of protective gear. On April 5, Canada’s chief medical officer, Theresa Tam, said hospitals should not throw away medical masks, including N95 respirators, because it may be possible to disinfect and re-use them.

The CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa is preparing to sterilize the masks with ultraviolet light for the CHEO pediatric health center.

“That transition from having masks to having no masks can happen very quickly, so having something in place now so we’re ready is really important,” said Katie O’Hearn, research coordinator at the institute.

So far the institute has looked into ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, and microwave and heat decontamination methods, but it is also studying chemical disinfectants, including vaporized hydrogen peroxide.

“We found that UV light could successfully remove viral pathogens from the mask,” she said, while ensuring that they still fit properly on the face. If used masks are needed, the hospital could do UV decontamination in the microbiology labs, O’Hearn said.

CHEO, which is using about 250 N95 masks per day, currently has a sufficient supply of new masks, said its medical chief of staff, Lindy Samson.

U.S. President Donald Trump has directed federal agencies to use any authority necessary to keep highly sought-after medical supplies in the country, kicking off a diplomatic spat with Canada over N95 masks produced by 3M Co.

Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, has characterized the market for medical equipment as “a Wild West,” and the government is encouraging more domestic production of medical supplies.

Hospitals in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Ontario and Saskatchewan are all collecting used masks and making plans to sterilize them should they run out of new ones. British Columbia’s health authority is evaluating whether to do the same, Chief Health Officer Bonnie Henry has said.

Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick is in “the very early stages of examining the feasibility of decontaminating and reusing N95 respirators during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Margaret Melanson, a vice president.

Newfoundland’s Eastern Health is developing a procedure to re-use N95 respirators. Saskatchewan’s provincial health authority said it would partner with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Centre to use vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate respirator masks.

In Ontario, Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre is also collecting used masks and has done its own testing but not used them yet, a hospital spokesman said.

Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital is collecting goggles at the end of shifts and is looking at possible decontamination methods, while the city’s University Health Network said it is saving personal protective equipment while it awaits the results of research.

All the health authorities and hospitals said they would need approval either from the province or the federal regulator to start using sterilized masks.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Steve Orlofsky