Massachusetts hospitals will be able to decontaminate their N95 respirator masks for free, helping to address a crisis for healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Battelle, an Ohio nonprofit, has set up one of its giant decontamination machines in Somerville, where it has been hailed as a “game-changer.” The system, which uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to decontaminate up to 80,000 respirator masks each day, is currently undergoing testing.
On Friday, Battelle announced that the decontamination service will now be offered at no charge to healthcare providers. The cost of decontamination for Massachusetts hospitals was initially planned to be about $3.25 per mask. Under a new Battelle contract with the federal government, the expense of treating N95 masks will be funded up to $400 million at 60 sites across the country.
“It certainly is great news and represents a big step forward in the battle against COVID-19,” said a spokesman for Partners HealthCare, which is hosting the Boston-area machine near its Assembly Row corporate offices in Somerville.
Amid widespread shortages of personal protective equipment, the Battelle machine is expected to be able to sterilize enough protective masks to serve all hospitals in Massachusetts. N95 masks used to be thrown away after each use under normal circumstances, but with the Battelle system, they can be reused safely up to 20 times, according to the nonprofit.
The local decontamination machine, which is owned and operated by Battelle, is situated at a vacant former Kmart store in Somerville. It is only the fourth such site in the United States to have a Battelle CCDS Critical Care Decontamination System, with others located in Ohio, New York, and Washington state, and more planned for deployment elsewhere.
The federal contract was awarded by the Defense Logistics Agency on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Battelle said that it covers the costs of staffing and training system operators. According to a job listing on the Battelle website, the nonprofit anticipates a need of at least 2,300 decontamination technicians for 100 sites, with 23 staff per site.
“Since bringing the first system online, we have received hundreds of requests for CCDS systems and services,” said Matt Vaughan, Battelle’s contract research president, in a statement. “The contract awarded to Battelle will allow us to staff additional systems to provide a continuous buffer against current and future N95 supply chain challenges.”
Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Partners HealthCare, previously said that the Somerville machine was “going through a phased start” and that officials hoped that over the weekend and into early next week, mask decontamination could be conducted “at an increasing rate.”
Steve Annear and Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.