LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A non-profit known for recycled clothes and donated appliances is helping stretch the state's supply of medical masks as Goodwill Industries hosts a decontamination system designed to reuse personal protective equipment.
The units look like shipping containers and arrived by truck to the southwest Little Rock facility Monday. By the end of the week, the boxes will act like giant washing machines disinfecting specialized N-95 masks vital to the fight against the coronavirus.
"In the health care industry right now, the sourcing of N-95 masks has been an issue. The PPE is an issue," said Brian Marsh, the CEO and President of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas. He took delivery of the units at the sprawling headquarters alongside Interstate 30.
"We thought that this was a great way that we could help out," he said. "We have a building here that's about 7,600 square feet that is built for hazardous waste so it is self-contained."
That's partially why Goodwill was selected to host the units after federal emergency management officials tabbed Ohio-based Battelle to create 60 sites across the country. Grants and FEMA funds will pay for the operation and offer it to a consortium of hospitals in Arkansas.
They arrive just in time as those hospitals start to offer elective surgical procedures again.
"From the beginning, we've had challenges with PPE although that seems to be improving somewhat as supplies are a little bit more available," said Dr. Nate Smith, the state secretary of health.
The process works by taking used, sealed masks and racking them within the boxes. The unit is sealed and the masks are blasted with hydrogen peroxide gas. As the mist evaporates, the equipment comes out clean and ready to go back to the hospital or clinic, like a high-tech sterilized dry cleaner.
"You can decontaminate a mask 20 times in the life of the mask," said Marsh. "This system can do up to 80,000 masks a day once it's operational, and they can run 24-7."
Marsh says there are about 500,000 masks in use in Arkansas right now and will keep hospitals from having to ship equipment out of state.
"We're seeing is there are now multiple channels for that protective equipment to get to the clinics and the hospitals," said Gov. Asa Hutchinson at his Monday news briefing on his confidence that health care facilities are ready to work on other tasks and surgeries beyond COVID-19.
"As we're doing our part with social distancing and wearing PPE, it's important that we do everything we can to support those who are on the front lines in this battle against COVID-19," said Marsh.