Crews have placed eight large storage containers inside a hangar at the Montana National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Helena.
The equipment inside those containers will soon be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to decontaminate thousands of N95 masks.
Each container is a sealed chamber, used for a Critical Care Decontamination System (CCDS).
That system will be operating in Helena as long as needed, thanks to a partnership involving the organization Battelle, the state of Montana, and the federal government.
Battelle introduced the CCDS as a way to address the demand for N95 masks among health care workers and first responders dealing with the threat of COVID-19.
Leaders say the machine can fully disinfect a single mask up to 20 times, allowing it to be reused.
The decontamination equipment arrived in Helena April 28. Leaders say it took several days to finish setting it up, and several more to test it. Now, they are ready to begin accepting masks.
“We’re ready to roll,” said Kris Adams, a program manager with Battelle and the site lead for the Helena station. “Whenever people start sending them in, we’re going to start running them.”
The federal government is covering the costs of decontaminating masks, up to $400 million. They are setting up 60 sites like this across the country.
Health care providers or emergency responders that want to disinfect their masks register with Battelle. They then receive instructions on safely packaging the used masks and shipping them to – or dropping them off at – the National Guard facility.
Once the masks arrive, workers wearing full-body protective equipment place them inside the chamber. Adams said each chamber can hold up to 5,000.
The chamber is then sealed and filled with vaporized hydrogen peroxide for several hours – which leaders say is enough to kill the coronavirus. The peroxide is then filtered out, and clean air is run through the chamber.
Once the masks have been aerated, Adams said they are in the same state as they were when they were initially produced. Workers will then repackage them and return them.
Adams said that by next week they will have 21 staff members in Helena, working on two 12-hour shifts. Once they reach full efficiency, they will be able to process up to 80,000 masks per day.
Jake Ganieany, manager of the state Emergency Coordination Center, said 18 facilities around Montana have already signed up to have their masks decontaminated.
“We anticipate that will go up tremendously in the next few days and next week,” he said.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who toured the station Thursday morning, said they may even have enough capacity to handle masks from neighboring states.
“When they can do up to 80,000 a day, it only makes sense to try to get other states if they need it,” he said.
Gov. Bullock said an N95 mask cost about $1 before the start of the COVID-19 crisis. He said the state has recently ordered another 1 million of the masks at a cost of $4.
“When you can take one of those masks with this Battelle machine and get it cleansed up to 20 times, it’ll just make it that much more likely that our first responders and our health care folks have the critical PPE that they need,” said Gov. Bullock.
The state will hold a webinar Friday for organizations that want to take part in this program, to provide specific instructions on how to prepare and transport masks. For example, masks that have makeup or bodily fluids on them cannot be fully decontaminated through the CCDS process.
Adams said the people working at the decontamination station are proud to be in Montana providing this important service.
“With some of the shortages and costs associated with new N95 mask availability and purchase, it’s nice to help the first responders in any way we can – to maintain the equipment they do have and make it safe for them,” she said.
You can find more information about the CCDS process and about how to register to take part on the Battelle website.