Battelle Got Hundreds of Millions to Clean N95 Masks. How'd That Go?
Matthew Exline heads up the ICU at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. When he thinks back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s one image that sticks with him.
“We still have photos of, on the windowsill in our ICU call room, just this lineup of dozens of masks in little paper bags with everyone’s name on it," Exline recalls, "so that you would use them over and over and over again."
Similar stories played out all over the United States. Health professionals were forced to repeatedly reuse the equipment standing between them and a deadly virus.
And because those nurses and doctors were the one thing standing between a pandemic and the general population, the stakes were extraordinarily high. N95 respirators, which filter out 95% of airborne particles, were especially scarce.
That’s about where Battelle comes in. Greg Kimmel, a manager with the Columbus-based research and development company, explains they had already run a study on cleaning N95 masks after the 2015 Ebola outbreak.
“We pretty much blew the dust off that study and then really concentrated on scaling it,” Kimmel says.
What Battelle came up with was a cleaning system housed in shipping containers, called the Critical Care Decontamination System (CCDS). Kimmel heads up the project, which was officially announced to the world in late March 2020.
After a slight setback with approval from the Food and Drug Administration – quickly fixed at the urging of then-President Trump – the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency awarded Battelle a $400 million contract to produce and operate 60 units.
A little over a month later, those shipping containers were loaded onto trucks and deployed around the country.
Battelle’s program was ready to decontaminate up to 20 million masks a month, but demand never came close to that.
“To date, we’ve spent around $150 million,” Kimmel explains. “So yeah, government contracts [are] a little different. They establish a ceiling and then they just pay you for how much you actually spent.”
Of the 60 units Battelle produced, 48 got deployed. Battelle recently decontaminated its 5 millionth mask. Even accounting for the masks they had to throw away, that’s less than half what Battelle planned to clean in a single month.
Using back-of-the-envelope math, the program has cost about $30 a mask. That’s much more expensive than a new N95 respirator, but Kimmel emphasizes that’s not the choice hospitals were facing a year ago.
“My initial response would be, would you rather have a $30 mask or no mask, right?” Kimmel says. “We never said we were going to be the cheapest option, we never approached it as the cheapest option, we approached it as, you’re going to have a decontaminated mask or no mask.”
Around the country, 26,000 health care facilities signed up for the service—which was offered to them for free—but only about 9,000 regularly used it.
On the front lines, some health care workers complained about masks coming back faulty or ill-fitting.
“I would say, probably like every fifth or sixth time you would get a mask, there would be something wrong that you would need to discard it and get another one,” says Rick Lucas, a registered nurse at Ohio State and president of the nurse's union.
Lucas says substandard masks are more of a nuisance than anything, because getting a replacement really hasn’t been a problem. Still, he does find it unsettling.
“You know, personal protective equipment is your last line of defense as you’re heading into a very dangerous situation,” Lucas says. “And so you expect what you pull off the shelf, that’s supposed to be sitting there to protect you, to be of acceptable quality and standards.”
Lucas doesn’t blame Battelle. Instead, he argues fault lies with the federal government for being ill-equipped ahead of the pandemic.
A welcome backstop
In the ICU department, Exline says he's gotten some iffy masks of his own. Thinking back to those used masks lined up along the windowsill, though, he says Battelle’s system was a crucial piece of support.
“Probably we could’ve made the limited supply we had limp along,” Exline says. “But I think what that would’ve done mentally to all the providers, to always in the back of your mind be thinking, 'Is tomorrow the day that I’m asked to do this without the right equipment?' You know, from a mental health standpoint, [it] took a huge burden off our providers.”
With COVID-19 numbers improving in Ohio and around the country, Battelle’s decontamination system is ramping down. Only about a dozen systems are still up and running, and the entire program will conclude at the end of this month – one year after they hit the ground.
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