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L.A. County sheriff says new decontamination center will allow N95 masks to be reused 20 times

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said a decontamination center will open to clean tens of thousands of N95 masks a day as hospitals grapple with shortages.
(Ana B. Ibarra / California Healthline)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced an initiative Monday to decontaminate N95 masks that will allow first responders and healthcare workers countywide to safely reuse them up to 20 times as they battle the coronavirus.

The new decontamination center comes as hospitals grapple with a nationwide shortage of protective gear and a rise of counterfeit masks on the market.

The cleaning chamber, at the Sybil Brand Institute in Monterey Park, is scheduled to begin operating next week. It will be able to clean up to 30,000 masks each day and save the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies tens of millions of dollars, Villanueva said.

“We’re trying now to find a way to stretch out our inventory and this decontamination will be the magic solution,” Villanueva said at a news briefing.

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The decontamination system uses a device about the size of a dishwasher that vaporizes hydrogen peroxide and blows out a mist that settles on and cleans the masks hanging on a rack.

The hydrogen peroxide solution costs $1,000 for a day’s use and the chamber can hold more than 10,000 masks in one cycle, said Capt. Chris Kovac, who spearheaded the initiative. He said he expects the facility to run multiple cycles each day.

“We want to ensure that everyone who receives a mask back from this decontamination facility can be assured that the mask is just as good and effective as a mask that they would receive new,” said Wesley Grose, director of the Sheriff’s Department’s Scientific Services Bureau.

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.

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Christina Ghaly, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, said healthcare employees run through 10,000 N95 masks daily at the county’s four public hospitals, 26 clinics and in the L.A. County jails.

“This can rapidly escalate into a critical shortage that can put our staff at risk,” she said.

Obtaining additional N95 respirators to meet the ongoing demand has proved difficult, she said.

“The actual supply of those masks, though, that we’re able to bring in is still far short of being able to match our run rate,” Ghaly said. “Given that supply constraint, that’s where this decontamination unit comes into place.”

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The Sheriff’s Department will collect and redistribute the used masks at distribution centers, Kovac said.

A similar device arrived last week at the Burbank airport, where it was scheduled to begin operating for hospital use. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman with the state Office of Emergency Services, said 40 hospitals had expressed interest and that a second unit was being set up in Northern California.

“It’s really a game changer,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom first announced the state decontamination program in March, but few details have been released since. On April 13, the Pentagon announced a $415-million contract with Battelle, an Ohio-based scientific research and development company, for 60 of the machines.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services were to decide where the machines would be located, with Battelle staff running them.

Statewide, more than 2,500 healthcare workers have fallen ill with coronavirus infections, sparking concerns among providers.

As of Monday morning, 61 Sheriff’s Department employees and 71 L.A. County jail inmates have tested positive for the virus. One nursing staff member who worked in the jails has died.

Times staff writer Antia Chabria contributed to this report.


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