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Boston hospitals getting ‘game changer’ machine that sterilizes 80,000 protective masks a day

The move could potentially serve all hospitals within the state and address a crisis for health-care workers

N95 respirators staged for decontamination in the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System.
N95 respirators staged for decontamination in the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System.Battelle

A mammoth machine that can sterilize up to 80,000 respirator masks a day is coming to the Boston area — a major breakthrough that could potentially recycle protective masks safely for all Massachusetts hospitals battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Partners HealthCare has teamed up with Battelle, a nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, and the city of Somerville on the project, which addresses a crisis for health-care workers as they face widespread shortages of personal protective equipment. The machine is scheduled to be operational next week.

Partners will host the machine, which is owned and operated by Battelle, near its corporate offices at Assembly Row in Somerville. It will be located at a vacant former Kmart store that Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone secured using emergency powers granted to him to respond to the pandemic. It will be only the fourth site for such technology in the country.

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“This is a critically important step forward in our efforts to protect health care workers on the front lines,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Partners HealthCare, in a statement. “By sterilizing 80,000 masks per day, this region will have a greatly improved supply of N95 respirator masks, keeping our workforce safe, ultimately improving access to care for patients in need during this pandemic.”

Battelle’s machine, which will be available to multiple hospitals in the region, uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to decontaminate N95 masks, which are in high demand and offer superior protection to other masks. Under normal circumstances, N95 masks are discarded after each use. With this system, they can be reused safely up to 20 times, according to Battelle.

“The Battelle team has been working around the clock for several weeks to build, test, and mobilize this system so we can increase the supplies of critically needed personal protective equipment in Boston and cities around the U.S.,” Matt Vaughan, Battelle’s contract research president, said in a statement.

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Sterilizing 80,000 N95 masks a day should be enough to serve all hospitals in Massachusetts and possibly New England, according to a note that Steve Walsh, president of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, sent to members Thursday morning. The letter was read to the Globe. Massachusetts General Hospital, it is believed, cycles through about 1,000 masks in a day.

Dr. Peter Slavin, president of MGH, called this a “game changer” for the region in terms of getting protective equipment to critical front-line health care workers.

The Battelle system, called a CCDS Critical Care Decontamination System, will arrive in Somerville Sunday morning, Vaughan told the Globe, and after assembly and testing it should be fully operational late next week. The initial cost of decontamination will be about $3.25 a mask, but that figure is expected to drop as these machines are placed around the country.

In late March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Battelle Emergency Use Authorization allowing it to sterilize masks for Ohio hospitals at its West Jefferson, Ohio, facility, and then to dispatch machines to other locations around the country.

Battelle employees processed equipment for decontamination.
Battelle employees processed equipment for decontamination. Battelle

“We’ve got to move fast and be nimble to handle the coming coronavirus surge. It hasn’t even been a week since Battelle’s technology got approved by the FDA. Partners is able to bring it over and we’re able to provide them with a facility where they can use it,” Curtatone said.

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A Battelle machine was just installed at New York’s Stony Brook University, where it is being tested and should start operating by Friday, a university spokesperson said. During a coronavirus briefing with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Sunday, Battelle CEO Lewis Von Thaer said the nonprofit had other machines en route to New York City and Seattle, and wanted to send them to Chicago and the Washington, D.C., area.

From the outside, the system in Somerville will look unassuming: six 20-foot metal shipping containers, arranged together. Two will contain decontamination chambers, and the others will have ancillary equipment, Vaughan said.

Boston-area hospitals will collect used N95 masks and Battelle staff in biohazard gear will load them into the decontamination chambers, where they will be arrayed on racks labeled for each hospital. Hydrogen peroxide vapor will circulate through the space for about 2.5 hours. Later each mask will be inspected and marked with the number of times it has been sterilized.

Shortages of personal protective equipment have set off a scramble among hospitals and governments around the world to secure the masks, gloves, and gowns needed by medical professionals. In Massachusetts, hospitals have begun rationing some protective gear and seeking public donations of PPE.

Without secure access to masks and other protective supplies, health-care workers face the real danger of becoming infected with COVID-19, potentially also spreading it to their families and patients. Coronavirus infections among workers at major Massachusetts hospitals nearly tripled in the past week, with 509 infected workers as of Wednesday, up from 177 the previous week, according to data tracked by the Globe.

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Battelle, which describes itself as the world’s largest private nonprofit research and development organization, has worked with the U.S. military to protect troops from chemical and biological hazards. Hydrogen peroxide vapor decontamination is a standard process used in pharmaceutical, research, and medical facilities, according to Battelle’s report for the FDA.

Hydrogen peroxide works “by attacking biological organisms – like viruses and bacteria – and causes their outer membranes to break apart,” University of Massachusetts Amherst associate professor Richard E. Peltier explained to the Globe.

Peltier is testing various types of sterilization treatments for masks, and a recent test at his labs on a mask sterilized by hydrogen peroxide “found no significant difference in its ability to block particles from a new mask that had not been sterilized,” he said. “From a public health viewpoint, this is very exciting because it shows these masks, which are normally disposable, could potentially be reused and this could help with the shortage of masks we now face.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that during a crisis, N95 masks may be reused for a limited time. But sterilization efforts are underway across the country to make them safer to re-use. Beth Israel Lahey Health sites have been storing used PPE and exploring options for sterilization, according to a spokesperson.

Peltier said Battelle’s systems are probably a good approach for large cities where there are high rates of infection and large amounts of contaminated materials needing treatment, including Boston, New York, Seattle, and New Orleans. However “it’s probably impractical for the hundreds of smaller hospital centers around the country and around the world that have the same needs, just at a lower volume,” he said.

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Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at rebecca.ostriker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeOstriker.