PORTLAND, MAINE -- 03/13/20 -- A sign points the way to the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in Portland on Friday. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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Maine Medical Center, the Portland hospital at the center of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak, is exploring the possibility of conserving N95 respirator masks by sterilizing and reusing them.

This week, MaineHealth, the hospital’s parent organization, started asking employees to hand over their used, undamaged N95 masks at the end of every shift or when they were visibly soiled, said John Porter, a MaineHealth spokesman. The hospital is collecting them as part of “a preliminary effort” to see if it’s safe and effective to clean and re-use them on a limited basis, he said.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“These masks will not be reintroduced into the supply stream unless this strategy is deemed necessary due to supply shortage,” Porter said, which isn’t the case right now. “However, MaineHealth believes it is prudent to consider all options for safeguarding the protection of health care workers and considers this a stopgap measure to be used only as necessary.”

The measure is a sign of the hospital’s early planning for dire scenarios that have played out elsewhere in the country as a result of a national shortage of protective gear, putting health care workers at risk of falling ill while they treat the sick.

Tight-fitting N95 respirator masks are in particularly high demand, including in Maine, because they protect the wearer from breathing in airborne particles. They are usually discarded after a single use, but the pandemic has forced health officials across the country to find creative ways to conserve their resources. Recycling N95 masks is one method that has emerged in other states as the virus keeps spreading.

Hospitals in Michigan, for instance, have used a process involving ultraviolet light and heat to decontaminate masks. And just to Maine’s south, Boston area hospitals are acquiring a machine that can sterilize up to 80,000 N95 respirators a day, allowing for each to be recycled as many as 20 times, the Boston Globe reported.

The machine cleans the masks with concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor, according to the paper, and could be used to help out hospitals across New England.

Porter did not provide specific details about how MaineHealth would recycle masks, if it had to.

He also declined to provide specific details for Maine Medical Center’s protocols for the use of protective equipment among staff, other than that they are consistent with guidelines outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last month, as cases of the virus began to rapidly spread across the United States, including to Maine, the CDC relaxed guidance around the use of protective gear to help hospitals cope with their limited supplies, including recommendations to extend the life of N95 masks.

As of Thursday, Maine had 560 confirmed cases of the virus. The number is expected to peak in late April, depending on how well people follow orders to avoid one another and stay home.

Watch: Nirav Shah thanks everyday Mainers for staying inside

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