UO partners with state to house N95 mask decontamination unit

A machine being installed at the University of Oregon will decontaminate N95 respirator masks, allowing the critical personal protective equipment to be used up to 20 times by frontline health care workers.

The decontamination unit is coming to Oregon courtesy of the U.S. government and to the Eugene campus through an agreement with the state and the university, which will house the unit.

Loading decontamination unit N95 masks have been in short supply during the coronavirus pandemic and are typically used just once and then thrown away. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of decontamination units, which sterilize the masks so they can be reused. While state and private procurement of protective equipment has improved in recent weeks, the new decontamination system will significantly increase the lifespan of Oregon’s supply of N95 masks.

Maintaining adequate reserves of such equipment is a key component of Gov. Kate Brown’s framework for reopening Oregon safely.

“We are happy to be able to support our health care workers and first responders in this way,” said Cass Moseley, senior associate vice president for research and innovation. “All the pieces fell into place quickly and, in a week or so, agencies across most of the state will be able to send masks here to be sterilized.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has contracted with the Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio. The agency plans to cover the cost of installation and will manage the operations, providing decontamination free of charge for public and private personnel who use N95 masks from across Oregon.

“An emergency of this scale requires partnerships across all levels of government and with the private sector,” said Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. “This is a great example of partners working together to bring an innovative solution forward to help save lives.”

The unit consists of eight shipping containers that have been converted into airtight chambers that use vaporized hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the masks. The state, U.S. government and Battelle are collaborating to ensure the chambers operate under peak safety conditions to protect the local area.

The UO will house the containers for a nominal charge in facilities at the Romania lot, at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Orchard Street. Oregon’s decontamination unit is one of 60 being placed around the country.