Alberta Health Services has started collecting N95 masks for the possibility of sterilizing and reusing them.
AHS made the announcement that masks may be reused last Wednesday when the province’s modelling data was released.
At the time, AHS President and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said some initial testing had been done that showed N95 masks could be steam sterilized.
A statement from AHS on Wednesday said N95 1870+ respirators are being collected from intensive care units in the Calgary and Edmonton zones and that approximately 80 per cent of health-care workers use this model.
“This is a contingency plan that will allow us to preserve these used N95 respirators for potential reuse if we require additional supply in the months ahead,” reads the statement.
Currently, the collected N95 1870+ respirators are not being circulated back to AHS facilities.
“Emerging research has shown that reprocessing does not damage or reduce the effectiveness and safety of these particular N95 respirators, AHS is proactively collecting this supply of used 1870+ models, in the unlikely event that demand exceeds our supply of single-use N95 respirators in the months ahead,” said AHS.
AHS is only collecting the N95 1870+ model right now because it is the only model known to withstand the steam sterilization process, but said it will look at other models down the line.
The health authority said health-care workers have been told that masks that are visibly soiled, ripped or torn or that have damaged elastics should be disposed of.
It is not clear, at this point, whether the sterilization process would occur at AHS facilities or off-site and how long it would take to turnaround supplies for reuse.
Dr. John Conly, an infectious disease professor at the University of Calgary, is doing research on COVID-19 and the decontamination and preservation of N95 masks. He is also a part of a research advisory group on the same topic for the World Health Organization.
Conley said a “made-in-Alberta” solution is being sought to re-use the masks in this province.
“Using vapored hydrogen peroxide, we have those capabilities within Alberta. There’s also the use of steam sterilization at about 121 C for about 30 minutes appears to work. We’ve already trialled that here in Alberta and we have shown that it is capable of sterilizing,” he said.
Conly said, with the latter method, work is underway to ensure the masks still meet the fit-testing criteria and have proper filtering capacity. He said teams are also looking to see how many times the masks could be safely re-processed.
The researcher said most Alberta hospitals have steam sterilizers or vapored hydrogen peroxide sterilizers and that the sterilization process could take between 30 to 60 minutes.
“You can put literally hundreds of masks through a sterilizer at any time, via steam sterilizers, or the use of the vapored hydrogen peroxide methods to be able to conduct this,” he said.
“We want to look at both [methods] because we would like to be able to see how we might maximize that capacity and have what is, in essence, a made-in-Alberta, innovative solution.”
Conly said there may be other strategies to recycle and re-use other types of PPE. Meanwhile, he said it is important to be prepared in case of global shortages of equipment.
“I think it’s just prudent planning to be able to look at how we might collect and then decontaminate these masks as a precious resource as we move forward,” he said.
The recycling program may be expanded to other acute care facilities across the province.
Last week, the province’s modelling data revealed that the supply of personal protective equipment is ample for April but could start dwindling by June. However, the projections revealed work was underway to cultivate equipment from suppliers and reuse equipment where safe and appropriate.
Late Sunday night, a cargo plane from China arrived with 80,000 pounds of procedure masks, gowns and face shields for front-line workers.
On Saturday, Premier Jason Kenney announced Alberta is donating some of its supply of protective masks, gloves and ventilators to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
The premier said Alberta has more than enough supplies of the equipment for its own COVID-19 needs.
Kenney said the number of hospitalizations in the province are below numbers that had been predicted in models for this point, and he says that’s due to Albertans following public health guidelines.
-with files from Caley Ramsay and The Canadian Press