Innovative Vance team extends useful life of scarce N-95 masks

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Cameron A. Schultz
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – In the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, necessity is truly the mother of invention at this pilot training base.

The medical professionals at Vance needed a way to sterilize scarce personal protective masks. The Spark Cell, the center of innovation for the 71st Flying Training Wing, went to work.

“So many times, people look at problems and think it takes a high-dollar solution to solve it, but it doesn’t,” said Maj. Christopher Jordan, the chief of innovation for the 71st FTW. “It just takes bringing the resources and manpower together and thinking of a better solution.”

That solution is a plastic storage box, aluminum foil and two UV-C lights that cost $300 and will save the Air Force over $100,000 while safeguarding personnel.

The 71st Medical Group was looking at how to extend the use of high demand face masks in the midst of a pandemic. According to Master Sgt. Matthew Dwyer, 71st Health Care Operations Squadron Logistics Flight Chief, the initial idea was to purchase a $90,000 UV machine to disinfect N-95 facemasks.

But given the expense, an alternate method was needed.

Rob Whitney, a member of the Spark Cell, pitched an idea to use UV-C lights to disinfect the masks used for patient care at the medical group. UV-C lights can be used for disinfecting water and surfaces from harmful microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses.

“I clean my desk with UV-C lights regularly and thought we could try it on masks,” said Whitney. Based on that idea, 1st Lt. Mitchell Guerin lead a team of bioenvironmental engineers from the 71st Operational Medical Readiness Squadron to develop the design and validate its effectiveness while also ensuring the respirators maintained filtering integrity.

After building the prototype, the 71st MDG collaborated with the Air Education and Training Command Surgeon’s Office.

“I was aware that a team of experts at the Command Surgeon’s office was developing a similar device, thus I shared the technical specifications and validation data of our own device for comparison”, said Col. (Dr.) Anthony Waldroup, 71st Medical Group Commander.

“After review by the team at AETC, we received approval to proceed with developing the procedures for implementing its use at the 71st Medical Group,” said Waldroup.

“This course of action is also in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statement that filtering face piece respirator decontamination and reuse may need to be considered as a crisis capacity strategy to ensure continued availability,” said Waldroup.

The 71st MDG began using the device April 13, just a week prior to the expected peak of COVID-19 activity in Oklahoma.

“With this tool, we can use these masks up to five times before they are no longer effective in suppressing harmful airborne agents,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Stephen Luker, head of the 71st MDG’s COVID-19 response team.

A 45-minute meeting with Spark Cell ended with a $300 solution rather than one costing $90,000.

“It would be easy to order a sanitization box and pay someone to build it, but the heart of the people of Vance and the Spark Cell is to look at the problem and figure out a solution,” said Jordan. “It’s about bringing the right people together and starting the conversation.”