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June 01, 2021

Emergency medical professionals collaborate on system for mask disinfection

IU Health Methodist Hospital

Emergency medical professionals collaborate on system for mask disinfection

It took a whole lot of expertise and ingenuity but two IU Health medical professionals have secured a way to disinfect contaminated masks.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

It started at 8:38 a.m. on March 22. IU Health emergency medicine doctor Timothy Ellender sent an email to his colleague Dr. Nathan Alves, an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine with IU School of Medicine.

The email said: “I’m wondering if we can create a rack that would let us pulse both sides.” A photo of a single large UV room-sterilizing tower accompanied the question. The UV towers are designed to kill germs and viruses. In this case, the towers were used to disinfect masks worn by medical staff members on the front lines of fighting COVID-19.

Ellender reached out to Alves because he needed someone with both a medical and engineering background who understood the complexity of the task at hand. Alves is the only non-physician tenure tract member in the IU School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine. He also has appointments at Purdue and IUPUI in Biomedical Engineering and at IUPUI in Biochemistry. And his wife, Dr. Anne Whitehead, works in the emergency departments at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health and IU Health Methodist Hospital. The couple is parents to two small children.

Alves had both professional and personal reasons for helping the hospital prepare for the influx of COVID-19 patients.

“At the start of the coronavirus onset there was a lot of confusion as to what was going on – how the virus spreads, the difference between droplet and aerosolized particles, what N95 masks actually do, and whether other mask types would work as well,” said Alves. Many of those questions were engineering-related so Alves was pulled into discussions.

When Ellender emailed the question and the photo to Alves he was looking for a contraption that could secure multiple surgical masks for quicker disinfection.

Mask disinfection contraption

Within two and half hours after receiving the email, Alves had sketched out a multi-tier rack. He constructed the rack in his garage - made of PCV pipe, a common thermoplastic material often used by plumbers. The rack was delivered to IU Health Methodist Hospital at 4:10 p.m. the same day Alves received the initial email.

Alves had recently used similar materials to create a frame for a makeshift movie screen. His family uses the screen with a projector to stage movie nights.

“The design of the rack was based on the physical size of the masks being UV exposed taking into account my prior research knowledge on UV light-of-sight requirements and that adequate spacing was critical,” said Alves. The rack stands nine feet wide and six feet tall and holds 68 masks at one time.

The UV towers are controlled through a wireless tablet. So Alves’ focus has been primarily on positioning the towers, and calculating the intensity and exposure to ensure that all surfaces of the masks are properly disinfected.

“My initial involvement in building the rack was simply because it was something I could to do to support the challenge that was ahead. Once I built the rack and handed it off I anticipated that would end my role in the process,” said Alves. “When I get interested in a project it is difficult for me to walk away and there were so many questions regarding the use of UV for treating and reusing the masks.” He reviewed UV guidance documents and relied on his expertise to establish and validate the system.

“My wife is one of the emergency room physicians who would receive one of the repurposed N95 masks,” said Alves. “That played a larger role in me being comfortable with the development and implementation. It has been nonstop as we continue to ensure everything is being done to the highest standards possible.”

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