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Orange County looks towards decontaminating, reusing PPE for first responders amid shortage

3M N95 Mask
As Orange County's stockpile of personal protective equipment diminishes, community leaders look to alternate, safe solutions to reuse PPE while supplies are limited. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Personal protective equipment is essential for first responders working during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Orange County and Chapel Hill may not have enough for the coming months.

Orange County has enough PPE for the time being, Todd McGee, Orange County community relations director, said. However, McGee said the county is trying to get more in case of a potential surge in need. 

“From the very beginning, there's been a shortage,” said Penny Rich, chairperson of the Board of Orange County Commissioners. “We've never really had, we were never at capacity, never at what we needed.” 

McGee said Orange County's supplies won't last several months and the county is working with vendors and government partners to build its supply.

The county has faced trouble competing with others to secure PPE, due to tremendous demand for the equipment, McGee said. However, the county does have protocols in place to preserve the existing supply.

Rich said she was concerned about the role of the federal government in allowing states and localities to obtain PPE. Initially, when the PPE supply for first responders was limited, she said, they felt weary sending them out into the field until they could make sure everyone was properly protected.

“To me, it's unbelievable that the government, the federal government, is playing such a game with purchasing PPE and making the states bid against each other to buy protective equipment,” she said. “I mean, that is something the federal government should say, ‘Okay, here, we're going to make sure that everybody has this’ and they're not, and they're leaving states out there to hang dry and not find what they need.”

At the beginning of the crisis, Rich said, the county was able to source PPE from the community — from those who had some at home, from people who would use PPE in their shops and even leftover masks from school chemistry classes.

However, she said, those donations have come in already, so there may not be much more PPE in the community for people to donate. She said despite the fact that residents may be making homemade masks and donating them to the county, homemade masks cannot be used as PPE for first responders.

Ran Northam, Chapel Hill's community safety communications specialist, said Chapel Hill is exploring other options to prevent the town from burning through its existing supply of PPE. He said the Town has been in contact with Duke Health regarding processes that will clean certain masks so they can be reused.

Duke Health developed a protocol to decontaminate N95 masks without degrading the mask. Laboratory testing showed the masks can be decontaminated more than 50 times while still meeting performance requirements.

Chapel Hill has also been working closely with the Orange County Emergency Operations Center, Northam said. He said the goal is to build a coordinated effort so the town is not competing with the county when it comes to building up its PPE supplies. 

“We feel comfortable being able to respond to the community, even if there is a surge of cases in our local community, especially as we’re continuing to look at processes of how can we clean, reuse masks and keep the usage down as much as possible," Northam said.


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