EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Two border communities are calling in reinforcements — in the form of state-of-the-art medical technology — to battle COVID-19.
First, El Paso hopes to complete installation by next week of a chamber capable of disinfecting thousands of the scarce N-95 surgical masks used by first responders and front-line medical workers caring for infected patients.
The company that manufactures the chamber on March 29 received emergency Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to sterilize used N-95s masks up to 20 times with its machine. A single Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System can accommodate and clean up to 80,000 pieces of personal protective equipment per day, according to the company.
It works by gassing the masks with concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor for two and a half hours to destroy bacteria, viruses and other contaminants, including COVID-19. (See video)
“We are working with public safety agencies and the hospital system to get that process in place. It’s going to be a game-changer,” said Assistant Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Jorge Rodriguez.
Each agency that wants to disinfect used masks will be responsible for safely collecting them and taking them to the still undisclosed site of the Battelle chamber.
Though details are pending, the chamber should be available for use by Juarez, Mexico health agencies, who would then transport the sanitized masks back to their jurisdiction, Rodriguez said at this week’s El Paso County Commissioners meeting.
Juarez, a city of 1.5 million people, has struggled for resources since the COVID-19 pandemic struck south of the border. El Paso’s Mexican neighbor has 466 confirmed coronavirus cases and 105 fatalities, but even its political leadership says that’s not an accurate count due to limited testing.
That could change after Friday’s arrival of a rapid diagnostic GeneExpert platform that can process swab samples in 45 minutes, Mexican officials said.
The platform has been used for years to test for tuberculosis as well as HIV and hepatitis C, but on March 20 received emergency FDA approval to test for COVID-19.
The GeneExpert platform will be installed at Juarez General Hospital and should be able to process up to 30 rapid coronavirus tests in a 12-hour period, Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral said.
A charity that provides services to disadvantaged Tarahumara Indians in the mountains of Chihuahua owns the machine and is loaning it to the state because of the COVID-19 emergency, Corral said. The state is procuring the program and supplies to test for the coronavirus instead of TB.
“By completing the process locally and getting results sooner, we can diagnose patients, start treatment faster to avoid complication and reduce the spread of the disease,” the governor said.
State government on Thursday reclassified Juarez General from designated trauma facility to a COVID-19 hospital because the other institutions that handle coronavirus patients are filling up. The nearby Women’s Hospital will now handle trauma patients, such as gunshot victims, state officials said.
Gumaro Barrios, the state’s chief epidemiologist in Juarez, said 85% of COVID-19 patients may be asymptomatic or only experience mild symptoms. He says that’s the reason people aren’t seeking tests.
“There’s different models and, according to the disease, there might be two or four or up to 10 undiagnosed cases for each one that is diagnosed,” Barrios said. “That could mean up to 4,000 cases, but we don’t know, that is just an estimate. The reality is that we have 739 confirmed cases in the state (of Chihuahua).”