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Creighton, CHI Health researchers partner on project to sanitize disposable PPE masks

Surgical masksAs the nation’s health system faces a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), scientists at Creighton University and its clinical partner, CHI Health, are researching one way hospitals and other medical facilities can conserve equipment they already have by sanitizing disposable surgical masks.

A team of researchers in Creighton’s School of Medicine has been exploring the possibility of sanitizing disposable masks using autoclaves, devices common in hospitals that use heat and pressure to sterilize materials, or constructing masks out of alternative materials that can be autoclaved or machine washed.

The project is one of many potential methods of addressing the PPE shortage currently being explored by an interdisciplinary team of Creighton and CHI Health professionals led by Renuga Vivekanandan, MD, associate professor and assistant dean for strategy and accreditation in the School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center — Bergan Mercy.

“The reason we’re doing all this is so we can share our knowledge with the community. So that we can help others,” Vivekanandan says. “It’s really amazing that we have so many experts at CUMC Bergan and Creighton with the knowledge and skillsets to help. A lot of innovative things are happening.”

Laura Hansen, PhD, professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, is one of the Creighton scientists involved in the project. Working alongside Jason Bartz, PhD, professor and associate dean of academic and faculty affairs in the medical school, and Richard Goering, PhD, professor in the medical school, the team researched several potential methods of sanitizing the disposable masks, including autoclaving, baking and microwaving.

The team worked with graduate student Rachel Johnson, who is pursuing a PhD in biomedical sciences, to test the masks in the lab, which remained open for certain research projects after the University transitioned to online courses in March.

“It’s surprising to me that this information doesn’t seem to already be out there. We can’t find any sources for anyone that’s done any kind of systematic study on this,” Hansen says.

Autoclaving, Goering says, proved to be the most effective way of killing the culture of MRSA bacteria that was applied to the test masks. The autoclaved masks have now been sent to Control Management, Inc., an Omaha HVAC company, to test whether they are still as effective as fresh masks at filtering out particulates. The team is awaiting results.

“If it looks like the mask integrity isn’t compromised, that would be a significant development,” Goering says. “What you’re basically allowing clinics to do is reuse what they have rather than worrying about running out of enough material. You’re basically making a big dent in the need for new masks.”

The project has been a rewarding opportunity for Hansen and her colleagues in the School of Medicine to lend their expertise to addressing problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a situation that basic scientists, like Hansen, don’t often find themselves in.

Goering agrees.

“One of the unique things about Creighton is the collegiality and camaraderie between the basic science departments and the clinical departments. We get along extremely well, and we look at each other as colleagues within the institution,” he says. “It’s only natural that the basic science side is very eager to support the clinical side, especially in an emergency like this. It’s extremely rewarding when you feel like you’re able to help your clinical colleagues out. This kind of partnership is great, and it speaks to the mission and values of the medical school and the University.”

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