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Decontamination station: In Blacksburg, new facility aims to clean medical masks for reuse

A new facility on Virginia Tech’s campus is taking aim at the N95 mask shortage that hampered medical efforts earlier in the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and emergency services officials formally unveiled an N95 mask decontamination station set up in a repurposed Marching Virginians Center by Battelle, the Ohio-based science and technology development nonprofit. The station will let masks be cleaned and returned to care providers for reuse up to 20 times, according to a news release from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Griffith noted that Southwest Virginia and West Virginia — the primary areas to be served by the new facility — have experienced relatively few COVID-19 deaths. Patients have not packed hospitals like in some parts of the United States. But with the new facility, Griffith added, “should we have a surge, we’ll be in a much better position to not overwhelm our health care system.”

Behind a tarp-covered chain link fence, the previously open-air band shelter was wrapped in plastic walls to house four decontamination units that looked like cargo shipping containers. Visible through a narrow window on each unit’s door were rows of shelves.

Starting Monday, the shelves are to be covered with masks, then the units sealed and filled with sterilizing hydrogen peroxide mist, said Christian Williams, Battelle’s site lead for the project.

The facility can decontaminate 80,000 N95 masks per day, the statement from Northam’s office said. It is one of three Battelle decontamination operations being set up in Virginia, and among 60 that Battelle is supplying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to locate around the country.

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