Gov. Charlie Baker on Saturday visited a site where medical-grade masks will be sterilized on a massive scale, a facility he's touted as a major help to Massachusetts' health care workers facing the possibility of being without adequate protective equipment as they treat coronavirus patients.
Speaking outside the facility, Baker announced that two coronavirus testing facilities, at Gillette Stadium and the Big E Fairground, are expanding access to grocery store and supermarket workers, including ones who aren't presenting symptoms. He also announced the activation of up to 3,000 more members of the Massachusetts National Guard to help in the state's coronavirus response, bringing the total to 5,000.
The majority of his remarks were about the need in Massachusetts for Battelle's mask-cleaning machines to "keep more masks in use and ... sustain our personal protective equipment supply." But he also said his administration is working every day to increase the supply of medical equipment as well.
"We're still working channels on additional N95 masks. We think this is a terrific tool to help us create a much longer shelf life and useful life for an N95 mask, but we're looking for more of those," he said.
The machines together can decontaminate up to 80,000 N95 masks per day, allowing doctors, nurses, EMTs and others to reuse them. It's made by Battelle and was brought to Massachusetts in a partnership between the Ohio company, Partners HealthCare and the City of Somerville, where it's located.
The facility consists of four trailers, each named after a different sports team, that can each sterilize masks around the clock, said Chris Coburn, the chief innovation officer at Partners HealthCare. Dozens of regional health care providers and other organizations that are using masks can deliver their used masks to the facility for cleaning and will have them returned in new packaging.
N95 masks are a crucial tool in the fight against the deadly new coronavirus, as they are designed with a close fit around the face and can filter out all but the tiniest airborne particles. But they're in short supply as medical workers and first responders around the world use them to prevent themselves from being infected.
Last month, Massachusetts scrambled to acquire enough to keep its front-line workers safe and found itself competing against all other U.S. states and the federal government, leading to New England Patriots owner Rober Kraft's purchase and import of more than 1 million masks from China -- an act that left Baker emotional.
Between acquiring the shipment and the Battelle machine, which will be able to clean those masks for reuse up to eight times, he said last Friday, "you start to feel like you're creating a little bit of a comfort for a lot of people who had been uncomfortable."
Baker was on Saturday's tour by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, whom Baker credited for securing the machine's arrival to the state. On Saturday, Massachusetts reported that it has seen 22,860 coronavirus cases and 686 deaths so far in the outbreak, which is expected to ramp up in the coming weeks.
The machine was assembled in an empty former K-mart store near Assembly Row in Somerville. It was just the fourth Battelle mask decontamination site to be announced in the country, though others have since been added.
The machine uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean masks for several hours, according to Battelle. The company said Friday that it will eliminate per-mask cleaning charges to health care providers under a new, $400 million federal contract, showing that "good things happen sometimes when people work together," Baker said Saturday.
The machines leave masks "absolutely safe from a bacterial and a viral perspective," said Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for Emergency Preparedness at Partners HealthCare, who called the sterilization an "extraordinary opportunity to continue to protect our health care workforce."
Health care workers are also seeking another important tool in the fight against coronavirus: ventilators, which are necessary to keep the most critical patients breathing but are in drastically short supply given the high demand nationwide.
Massachusetts has so far only received 200 of the 1,000 it requested from the federal stockpile, Baker said.
"The message we got from the feds was that we would receive ventilators on an incremental basis," he said. "So far, they're living up to that. They gave us 100. They gave us another 100. They’ve committed another 200."