She’s a doctor; he’s an engineer. Their conversation led to a new system that can decontaminate 80,000 masks a day.

A dinner table chat between husband and wife may help solve the coronavirus mask shortage

April 14, 2020, 5:01 PM EDT / Updated April 15, 2020, 11:06 AM EDT
By Didi Martinez, Brenda Breslauer and Stephanie Gosk

Late Monday, the Pentagon announced a $415 million contract to commission 60 decontamination systems that will allow millions of highly protective N95 face masks to be reused.

The system, which can process up to 80,000 masks per day, has been called a potential “game changer” for the front-line health care workers and first responders who rely on the masks, according to hospital officials concerned about a shortage of protective equipment to shield their staff from COVID-19.

But the story of how this system came to be is a testament to what can happen when a doctor and an engineer — who happen to be husband and wife — ask, “What if?”

A month ago, Laurie and Kevin Hommema had just finished dinner with their daughters, Emmy, 9, and Clara, 7, at their home in Columbus, Ohio. Laurie, a family physician who oversees well-being for the OhioHealth hospital network, had just come from a meeting at her hospital’s Incident Command Center. She said she was worried about the dwindling supply of N95 masks and told her husband that she wouldn’t have a mask when the coronavirus surge hit.

That’s when Kevin, an engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research organization, offered up a simple solution, “Why don’t you just clean them up and reuse them?”

Laurie said, “You can’t do that?” In normal circumstances, N95 masks are thrown out after a single use.

But Kevin remembered a study his colleagues at Battelle had conducted five years earlier showing the masks could be decontaminated and reused in an emergency.

“It seemed like a slam dunk to me,” Kevin said.

In the past Battelle has been awarded several government contracts and consulted the U.S. military on issues like chemical and biological hazards.

“We use this technology to decontaminate materials and surfaces and equipment all the time to rid them of dangerous pathogens,” Kevin told NBC News.

Kevin and Laurie said they immediately got to work. Within minutes, Kevin emailed his colleagues to track down the research. Laurie emailed her boss at OhioHealth to ask if she could pursue this, saying “I think this could really be something to help us.”

The couple then spent the evening drawing schematics, sketching out what a unit might look like. And by Sunday — only three days later — executives from OhioHealth and scientists from Battelle met to talk about the project.

From there, everything happened at warp speed, said Justin Sanchez, a life sciences research fellow at Battelle who was involved in the implementation of the system.

“This is the all hands on deck,” he told NBC News. “To be quite honest, we’ve been working day and night.”

Within five days, OhioHealth had sent a shipment of contaminated masks to Battelle to test the technology. Fast forward to March 29, when the Food and Drug Administration granted Battelle emergency authorization to deploy the machines to sites around the country. It was 15 days from the conversation at the Hommemas’ house to the greenlight from the FDA.

Here’s how the decontamination system works: The masks are steeped in concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor inside a chamber — in this case a repurposed cargo-shipping container — for about two and a half hours. It takes a couple more hours to clear the chamber of any residual gas. With Battelle running the cycle 24/7, each system can process up to 80,000 N95 makes per day. According to Battelle, the masks can go through the system 20 times without degrading.

The first site to use the machine was OhioHealth, the 12 hospital system where Laurie works.

“The more we thought about it, the more ingenious it seemed,” said Dr. Simi Bhullar, a critical care doctor and medical director at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital.

“The best part about it is it allows us to continue with the work as if nothing has changed,” Bhullar told NBC News. “We’re not stressed about, ‘Gosh, how many masks are left?’ And it really allows us to focus back on what we need to be focused on, which is patient care and how do we best manage the patients of the pandemic.”

After the Ohio launch, one of Battelle’s CCDS Critical Care Decontamination Systems made its way to Long Island, New York, another to Seattle, and over the weekend, another was unveiled in the Boston area outside an old Kmart. Health-care workers can send over their masks to be decontaminated.

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