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Andrea Hicks
April 9, 2020

It could be possible to face a pandemic with reusable PPE

Written By: Alex Holloway

As COVID-19 cases surge across the United States, medical workers have scrambled to find ways to fill critical gaps in the nation’s personal protective equipment supply—in part because single-use PPE such as gowns and N95 masks are being discarded by the millions.

Reusable PPE may help fill those gaps, says Andrea Hicks, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“One of the big issues we have is this huge reliance on single-use disposable equipment in the United States,” Hicks says. “Historically, we’ve used lots of reusable equipment; however, we’ve moved away from that because we’re worried about transmitting infections through reusable equipment.“

She’s studying ways we might safely return to reusables, and the National Science Foundation is funding her research with a one-year, $78,394 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant.

Hicks will use tools often employed in life-cycle assessments, which quantify products’ or processes’ lifetime environmental impacts, focusing specifically on equipment that’s geared toward pandemic control, such as masks, respirators and gowns. She says the techniques are useful for drawing comparisons between reusable and disposable PPE—for example, determining how many disposable masks are the equivalent to one reusable respirator.

She’ll also study the efficiency and longevity of homemade PPE, like the hand-sewn masks that community groups across the country have made to help medical workers during the pandemic-induced shortage. Through her research project, she’ll crowdsource data on homemade PPE through social media and in doing so, provide a “living timeline” of PPE scarcity in the United States medical system.

“The tools that we use are really well suited to understanding how we think about the lifetime,” she says. “We need to think about how to clean them, how fast we can clean them, what type of equipment we need, and its capacity.”

Understanding those questions, Hicks says, could inform how hospitals can better prepare for peaks in demand like the one that’s come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of having to source so many pieces of disposable equipment, healthcare facilities could use a mix of disposable and reusable equipment, which may, in turn, help to blunt demand when need surges.

Balancing this demand with proper reusable equipment also may help medical workers stay healthy; because of the severe shortage of any PPE, for example, some medical and rescue personnel have turned to reusing disposable masks in an effort to protect themselves from infection. While some hospitals are being forced to use disposable PPE in ways that would have been unimaginable a few months ago, Hicks says that equipment, even if reprocessed for reuse, would have a very limited lifespan.

“All of this goes into a resiliency question,” Hicks says. “How do we buffer against these big spikes in demand? Is it that we have a certain percentage of reusables in the system? How much do we need and what would that look like? Yes, it’s a bigger investment up front, but how can that help us prepare for what comes next?”