More Wisconsin Sites Will Decontaminate Medical Equipment To Allow Reuse

May 6, 2020

Wisconsin officials are trying to step up the decontamination of some key pieces of medical equipment used by health care workers treating patients who have COVID-19. The hope is to reuse more items like N95 respirators, which are tight-fitting masks that reduce the wearer's exposure to the coronavirus.

Inside a large garage in Madison, units that look like small truck trailers are being set up for one type of decontamination process. On a media tour Tuesday, reporters stepped through an opening in a large plastic curtain to get a look at four decontamination chambers. Battelle Energy will do the federally funded work. 

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Company field technician Caitlyn Farragher says used respirators sent in by hospitals and other health care providers will be put in the chambers and hit with hydrogen peroxide vapors to get rid of any virus. But she says the facility cannot clean soiled masks. 

"A soiled mask we're defining as anything with blood, bodily fluids or makeup. Makeup is one of the big ones. We cannot confirm that any of those are getting cleaned, or decontaminated,” Farragher said.

The Madison facility will join a few other sites around the state that decontaminate personal protective equipment (PPE). A company in Kenosha cleans with ultraviolet radiation.  The state of Wisconsin says another decontamination facility will open later this week in northwest Wisconsin. 

Inside one of the decontamination chambers at a site in Madison, Wis.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the respirators are not approved for routine decontamination, but that reuse may be needed during times of shortage. Kevin Wernet, with Wisconsin Emergency Management, says with some medical equipment still in short supply around Wisconsin, that time is now.

"We know the largest need are N95 respirators. With the volume of this site and emergency use authorization by the [Food and Drug Administration], this will be a big part of that PPE reuse requirement,” Wernet said.

The Madison site may eventually be able to clean tens of thousands of the N95 masks every day.

Used personal protective equipment sent in by hospitals and other health care providers can be dropped off at some sites in Wisconsin for decontamination.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Jamie Lucas, with the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, says the decontamination efforts are a positive step. But the union leader says some nurses worry the gowns they wear over their scrubs aren't sufficient.

''I know we've requested in a few facilities that they begin laundering and collecting scrubs at the end of shifts. Just to ensure that our nurses and health care workers aren't taking these contagions home to their family or out into the community," Lucas told WUWM.

Lucas also says nurses are worried about the N95 respirator supply this fall and beyond if there's another spike of COVID-19. 

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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