Dangling N-95 masks, drying after disinfectant dousing with hydrogen peroxide at a Battelle CCDS. (Courtesy photo) 

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, facemasks have become de riguer. As the Washington Post flatly declared earlier this week, “Most people wear masks when they’re out and about.” 

For those not employed by the medical profession, a bandana will do the job. But the gold standard in personal protective equipment (PPE) is the close-fitting N-95 mask, named for its ability to block “at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) particles” from airborne transmission.

N95 masks are in short supply, but a system that went into effect in Montrose last week could offer some help, by decontaminating up to 80,000 N-95 masks every day. Each used mask, according to the nonprofit scientific research firm Battelle, can be decontaminated and redeployed for “battle” against the coronavirus up to 20 times.

Battelle calls its technology — which was recently established through a joint initiative of the Colorado Unified Coordination Center, FEMA, U.S. Health and Human Services, and Montrose County — a Critical Care Decontamination System (CCDS). There are two such systems in the state: one in Adams County, and one on the Western Slope, in Friendship Hall at the Montrose County Fairgrounds. 

The disinfectant procedure happens in what looks like a modified airplane hangar, takes about three hours and employs vaporized hydrogen peroxide to remove all traces of the novel coronavirus.

Medical center employees from western Colorado or eastern Utah or (for that matter) anywhere can deliver used PPE in person, or ship the goods overnight to Montrose for disinfecting. Battelle’s system is now operating in several states and been ramping up quickly over the last couple weeks, ever since it received emergency approval to operate from the FDA. “This was a resource offered through a partnership with FEMA to help us,” said Micki Trost, strategic communications director for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The CCDS in Adams County “has more than 200 agencies using it,” Trost said. 

She didn’t know how many medical centers, first responders or others have used the system so far on the Western Slope, and senior research scientist Laura Aume, the on-site leader for CCDS in Montrose, wasn’t at liberty to say, but did acknowledge that things have been busy: “We’ve been operating since early last week,” she said. “We have a contract to do this at 60 sites in the U.S. So far, we have 16 people on-site in Montrose.”

Asked what it was like to work with PPE contaminated by the coronavirus, Aume chuckled. 

“Battelle has a long history of working with lots of biological agents,” she said simply. “We’re safer processing masks than you are going to the grocery store.” 

Battelle is hiring, but there are “no guarantees,” Aume said, that new employees will be sent to an area of the country of their choice. Turns out, southwest Colorado was one of hers: “I’ve visited Colorado before and I love it,” she said. She sought out this gig because the company “was looking for volunteers from the ranks, and I saw it as a way to participate,” she said. “We have dozens of facilities signed up, we’re operational, and we’re on 24-hour shifts right now.” 

In short, Aume’s work here is done. 

“My job calls,” she said (she’s a data scientist who has been based in Battelle’s Ohio headquarters for the last 20 years). “I’m going back tomorrow. This has been a lot of work, but I did manage a couple of sightseeing drives, including one to the Black Canyon. I hate to leave. Of all the places to be stuck during a pandemic, this is one of the best. It’s a wonderful place,” she added a little wistfully, “when there’s nothing to do.”