Still a shortage of medical masks, but researchers figure out safe reuse method

Healthcare workers in the Netherlands are still facing a shortage of protective gear to protect them against the spread of coronavirus Covid-91, as well as a shortage of disinfectants, according to a survey by NU'91, the association for nurses and carers. At the same time, new research from TU Delft determined that many types of medical masks may be safely reused several times using a specific sterilzation procedure.

The NU'91 questionnaire was completed 6,500 times. In 92 percent of those, respondents said they had an insufficient access to protective gear, RTL Nieuws reports.

Because they sometimes do not have access to medical masks, nurses look for alternatives that are not safe, according to NU'91. "For example, several stories have come in from nurses in neighborhood care who work with self-made dust masks or kitchen towels," the association said. And because of the scarcity, available masks and aprons and the like are often used for longer than is safe.

"This increases the chance of contamination for the healthcare provider and the patient many times over."

Healthcare workers are concerned about their own safety, and that of their patients, NU'91 president Stella Salden said to RTL. "Once they express these fears to their employers, they are not always taken seriously."

Mask sterilization

A portion of the shortage could potentially be overcome if medical facilities focus more attention on reusing some safety gear which otherwise might have been disposed. "With respect to this threating [sic] deficit, hospitals and other healthcare institutions may want to become independent of their suppliers and pursue circular re-use of mouth masks and other personal protection products," wrote three researchers from TU Delft in a paper the university published this week.

Early testing showed that exposing FFP2 respirator masks to a steam cleaning at a temperature of 121 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes provided adequate sterilization without deforming the masks. The masks did begin to deform after multiple attempts to steam them in an autoclave, and after one attempt to clean them at a higher temperature, according to a memo published by health agency RIVM.

The RIVM previously published that some masks could be cleaned twice in hydrogen peroxide, allowing them to be used a maximum of three times before losing their effectiveness.

The work by the TU Delft researchers was carried out in combination with a private medical supplies company in Utrecht. Over the past weeks the researchers have been working on improving the steam cleaning method.