THE life-saving N95 masks that medics on the frontline of the coronavirus epidemic so desperately need can be re-sterilized by baking them, scientists have discovered.
A team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) found commercial ovens decontaminate the respirator masks that doctors and nurses are required to wear while treating patients.
The process can re-sterilize masks for use at least 20 times, which the university said will be a "game-changer".
There has been a dire shortage of the masks, which filter out 95 per cent of very small particles from the air. The US has scrambled to produce more of the PPE (personal protective equipment), with companies switching production lines to make the masks.
Outdoor retailer Eddie Bauer is making both N95 and surgical masks, while clothing brands Gap, Neimann Marcus and Ralph Lauren are producing non N95 masks.
Other businesses have halted selling N95s to free them up for healthcare workers, such as Home Depot, which ordered all its 2,300 stores to stop stocking the face gear.
On April 3, President Trump demanded 3M, a US company that has doubled down on efforts to make masks, stop shipping them abroad.
But industry efforts have still fallen short, and hospital workers have been left with no choice but to make their own masks.
Jeff Dwyer, director of MSU's Extension team, which was assembled to conduct research on sanitization of PPE, said the university had a "duty" to use its obligations.
"This is one of those times in many of our lifetimes that we need to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things and push for solutions," he said in a statement.
A team of eight worked to trial a process that includes putting masks through a heating process to figure out the right temperature and time needed to decontaminate them.
Once complete, the mask is bagged for three days before it can be used again.
Simple commercial ovens are used, like those available at food processing facilities. The heating "just requires a bit of fine tuning," said Dwyer.
The team is continuing to test the new discovery, but Dwyer hopes to ramp up work and begin collecting and decontaminating masks from local healthcare providers next week.
Confusion is still rife among the public as to whether masks should be warn to avoid contracting the disease.
For months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have advised against people wearing masks to protect themselves during the outbreak.
The CDC has said people infected — or those showing symptoms such as fever and shortness of breath — should wear masks to avoid spreading it to others.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, said on March 31: "There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.
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“In fact, there's some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.”
But, Ryan noted, there is a “massive” global mask shortage as everyone tries to wear one.
"Right now the people most at risk from this virus are frontline health workers who are exposed to the virus every second of every day. The thought of them not having masks is horrific."
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