The Pentagon has ordered 60 machines that will be able to disinfect more than 4.8 million N95 protective masks a day.
The Department of Defense on April 13 announced that new decontamination units produced by Battelle—at a total cost of $415 million—will be able to clean each mask up to 20 times.
“All 60 systems will be available by early May for prioritization and distribution by FEMA and HHS,” Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, Department of Defense spokesman, said in a statement. “Once all are delivered, these 60 units will allow 4.8 million masks to be sterilized per day, almost 34 million per week.”
N95 masks, which provide a level of protection to the wearer from COVID-19 that’s needed by health care workers, are in short supply across the globe. Being able to reuse masks will ease the pressure on supply.
“Six units have already been delivered to locations including two to New York, and one each to Columbus, Ohio, Boston, Chicago, and Tacoma, providing the ability to sterilize 3.4 million masks a week, reducing the need for new masks by the same number.”
The masks are cleaned using “concentrated vapor phase hydrogen peroxide,” according to a description on the Battelle website. “The respirators are exposed at the validated concentration level to decontaminate biological contaminants, including the SARS-CoV-2.”
“Healthcare systems will collect worn N95 respirators each day in accordance with an approved procedure, and the PPE will be labeled with a barcoded serial number for tracking the chain-of-custody throughout the decontamination process,” the company stated. “This procedure ensures that the hospital system receives its own respirators back.”
Over the weekend, the Pentagon announced a $133 million project to help fill the mask shortage, which will produce more than 39 million masks in 90 days under the Defense Production Act (DPA).
“On the evening of April 10, the Department of Defense received approval from the White House Task Force to execute the first DPA Title 3 project responding to COVID-19,” said a Pentagon statement. “The increased production will ensure the U.S. government gets dedicated long term industrial capacity to meet the needs of the nation.”
Title 3 of the DPA allows the president to invest in specific industries to expand the domestic capacity and supply for defense-related materials. Despite its name, the Defense Production Act can be conscripted for other national emergencies.
Beyond arranging contracts for medical equipment, the military has been assisting directly in other ways as the United States wrestles with the CCP virus.
Currently, more than 29,000 members of the National Guard have been deployed (pdf) by their local governors, with 34 states receiving federal top-up funding to ensure they can use their Guardsmen at will, without worrying about the cost.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently building 25 field hospitals, with another 15 in the pipeline.