Wisconsin has system that can clean 80,000 N95 masks a day.
Caitlyn Farragher, with Battelle, shows off a decontamination trailer where officials say the state has the capacity to sterilize 80,000 N-95 masks a day. (Photo © Andy Manis)

FEMA delivered decontamination system, 230,000 N95 masks

Wisconsin now has the capacity to clean 80,000 of the much sought after N95 respirator masks, extending the life of the masks worn by frontline healthcare workers who care for COVID-19 patients.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently delivered 230,000 N95 masks and a Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System, a device to decontaminate them. 

The Battelle system decontaminates masks by killing viruses and bacteria using hydrogen peroxide gas. Battelle, a non-profit research firm that has a contract with FEMA, says a N95 mask may be  decontaminated up to 20 times before the process begins degrading the filtration performance of the mask.

WISN-TV reporter Derrick Rose video tapes during a media tour of a decontamination trailer. (Photo © Andy Manis)

“This innovative solution will help dramatically extend the life of N95 masks and address the concerns many health care workers have expressed about the safety of reusing masks,” said Gov. Tony Evers in a statement. “This is a critical component of my Badger Bounce Back plan and a key part of getting our state in a position to continue to gain momentum.”

The high-tech system is located in Madison at an undisclosed location. Media that toured the facility Tuesday did so with the understanding its location would be kept confidential. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Centers for Disease Control guidelines stipulated N95 masks should only be worn once and then thrown away. Because of the high demand for these sturdier masks and surgical masks,  healthcare workers across the country have been forced to ration the number of masks they use per week.

The Battelle system can not clean N95 masks that contain cellulose-based materials. Masks also must be free of any visual soiling, including blood, bodily fluids and makeup. Masks that are brought to the site will be marked to identify the owner and returned to them once they are clean, said state officials. 

The state will be contacting healthcare systems across the state to facilitate drop-off and pickup of masks. The facility is not open to the general public.