Massachusetts General Hospital's effort to get more desperately needed masks to its health care workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic received a big boost this week. More than 2,000 clinicians taking care of patients at the hospital are now using re-circulated N95 masks sanitized by the Battelle mask decontamination system in Somerville.

Meaghan Gray, senior director for sterile processing and supply at MGH, said this is absolutely a game changer. MGH uses between 800 and 1,000 N95 masks a day, she said.

"It's been really hard to keep up with the supply and demand, and I can tell you, the clinicians that are taking care of those patients are so grateful to have their mask back," Gray said.

Workers do get the exact same mask returned to them after it is decontaminated. Gray said MGH worked with Battelle to develop a system that would ensure this.

"When you think about the N95, they are fitted to your face. And so if you're going to get somebody else's mask back, you have to re-form it. And that takes a little bit of skill," she said. "And so our thought was, okay, if we can get the mask back to that individual user, the likelihood that it would fit their face and provide that added level of confidence was something we just wanted to try."

The system involves giving each mask a code. There is a three-letter primary code, which is MGH, and a secondary two-letter code, which indicates the unit the mask user works in. Each person also writes their name on the mask with a Sharpie pen. The masks are then organized and separated for distribution. Once decontaminated, the masks are packaged individually and brought back to the hospital.

"We actually were able to take a page out of the food service industry," Gray said. "They make these wonderful cardboard or paper boxes that look like a little hamburger box. The mask fits inside perfectly."

Gray said MGH has also worked hard to address any safety concerns expressed by the staff, and said there has been misinformation circulating about the differences between sterilization and decontamination.

"Sterilization is not what we're actually achieving here. Sterilization is the absence of all life. Decontamination means clean, able to touch and safe to interact with." Gray pointed out that new N95 masks are not sterile. "They are not individually packaged. They come in a sleeve," she explained.

Currently, there are two drop-off and return shipments between MGH and the Battelle site in Somerville every week. Gray said she expects this will change as the system ramps up and more facilities are brought online.

"We're all fighting that massive wave of doom and gloom," she said. "So it's really important for me to say there is some sun."