Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva unveiled a decontamination center Monday that he said can disinfect up to 30,000 much-needed N95 masks daily and save the county more than $18 million.
The Sheriff's Department is the first law enforcement agency in the nation to open such a center, the sheriff said. The N95 masks have been in high demand at hospitals and clinics worldwide to protect nurses, physicians and first responders treating COVID-19 patients.
Speaking at a briefing at the COVID-19 Regional Decontamination Center at the Sybil Brand Institute in Monterey Park, Villanueva pointed to an "airtight decontamination chamber ... about the size of a small dishwasher."
The equipment vaporizes highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate masks in line with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reuse up to 20 times.
The equipment can accommodate 10,000 masks per cycle and the department plans to run multiple decontamination cycles each day, he said.
That will help county health care workers and first responders stay safe despite the increasing cost and severely restricted supply of N95 protective masks, according to the sheriff, county Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby and Department of Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly.
"The market rate for these N95 masks keeps climbing day by day," Villanueva said, adding that his department has about a nine-day supply available at any one time.
DHS uses more than 10,000 masks daily, Ghaly said.
The optimal situation would be to buy new masks, but the county's use of them "can rapidly escalate into a critical shortage" and "vaporized hydrogen peroxide has been proven to be among the most effective" ways to decontaminate used masks, Ghaly told reporters.
Osby said his department has been working with local, state and federal officials, as well as vendors around the world to get the masks his department needs and thanked the sheriff for his help.
"The collaboration between the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Sheriff's Department and Health Department is strong," Osby said, calling the technology "really cutting edge."
For now, the plan is to decontaminate and recycle masks for use by county departments, but Ghaly said other agencies were considering similar efforts and a sheriff's spokesman said the department would consider aiding other county "partners" in the future.
The sheriff's Scientific Services Bureau will oversee the process to ensure strict adherence to CDC guidelines.