Working Together News

Extending the Life of PPE Critical for All

Eight thousand twenty-nine. That’s the number of N95 masks that have been saved since Saint Joseph Hospital and National Jewish Health began using UV light sterilization technology to process masks for reuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We were fortunate that in the fall of 2019 we had learned about a new UV light technology for medical equipment sterilization,” said John Ostdiek, director of transportation at Saint Joseph Hospital. By December 2019, the hospital had its first UV light sterilization machine in place, well before the pandemic took its stronghold on Denver in March 2020.  

“We researched white papers about UV technology used to reprocess N95s,” Ostdiek said. “We determined a process for us to process the masks to ensure they didn’t have bacteria or viruses left on them.” 

The UV light sterilization unit is a little bigger than a phone booth. The masks are exposed to the UV light for four minutes for the exterior patient-facing side, and two minutes for the interior. This process damages the DNA of the COVID-19 virus and kills it, making the mask safe to wear again. 

“It was really impressive to see how well the UV light worked,” said Ostdiek. Studies published about the UV light sterilization machines showed that they produce about eight times the amount of UV light radiation in 60 seconds when compared to average UV light sterilization units, like those used in research laboratories. This extreme dose of UV light is effective in killing higher concentrations or stronger strains of viruses and bacteria, like COVID-19 on masks. 

While evaluating the new equipment, it was determined that the masks can be reprocessed five times and still seal to the face appropriately.

“We started seeing some deterioration after 10 reprocessing sessions. So, to be safe, the evaluation team decided to limit the number of reprocessing sessions to five,” Ostdiek said. 

According to Peter Farina, director of Safety and Security and member of the PPE Committee at National Jewish Health, “If we didn’t have access to the UV light sterilization technology, we would have run out of certain types of respirators, especially N95s.” He also explained that the medical grade N95 masks that are available are prohibitively expensive.

“The UV light sterilization is saving us 150 to 200 masks a week. We aren’t stressing about our internal supply chain,” Farina explained. In fact, the UV light sterilization machines were used so frequently at the height of the pandemic that a second machine was installed in April. 

Experts anticipate that COVID-19 will spike again this fall, and we are confident that we will be able to accommodate an increased need for PPE. Both Saint Joseph Hospital and National Jewish Health have been stock piling masks. In a worst case scenario, we can reprocess masks up to 10 times, based on the earlier testing of the sterilization equipment.

“We saved all of the N95s that have been reprocessed five times in case we need to reprocess them again,” Ostdiek said.

For both organizations, the UV light sterilization technology has proven to play a critical role in strengthening the supply chain of N95 masks and ensuring a safe environment for health care staff and patients.