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Applying phototherapy expertise to the COVID-19 crisis

Inspired to support the COVID-19 response, a dermatologist discovered a new way to sanitize N95 masks, keeping frontline providers safe.

Iltefat H. Hamzavi, MD, FAAD
Iltefat H Hamzavi, MD, FAAD, Henry Ford Health System

Henry Ford Dermatology and Dr. Hamzavi's story

Because of supply shortages, many frontline providers don’t have adequate access to the personal protective equipment needed to safely care for patients with COVID-19.

Hearing these stories from across the nation—and from those in my own circle, like my sister-in-law who is an anesthesiologist and had to intubate a patient without a proper mask—inspired me to think about how dermatologists could help during this public health crisis.

I specialize in phototherapy: the use of ultraviolet lights to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and viruses. Though I typically use phototherapy to treat skin disorders like psoriasis, eczema, and vitiligo, it seemed the same technology could be applied to help with the pandemic response.

Our team at Henry Ford Health System (HFHS), which includes a physicist, three physicians, three research fellows, and a clinical trials coordinator, runs a highly regarded photomedicine unit. The team worked around the clock to make this idea a reality. We worked closely with a phototherapy technology manufacturer to create a prototype of a device that could clean N95 masks, allowing them to be re-used by medical professionals.

Our research focused on: (1) identifying what wavelength of light and the amount of light is needed to decontaminate the masks through irradiation, (2) ensuring that the entire mask surface is treated, and (3) confirming that the decontamination does not affect the filtration or fit of the mask. Soon after, we collaborated with HFHS’ department of infection prevention and control to test the cleaned masks with frontline nurses and doctors, making sure that the masks stayed intact and continued to fit properly, use after use.

Each and every member of our team contributed to the research and evaluation required for this critical work. Our Chair, Dr. David Ozog, laid down our mission very clearly: our focus was to protect our frontline workers. He worked to get us the resources and collaborations we needed to do our work. Dr. Henry Lim, our unit’s founder, ensured the protocols were peer reviewed, which improved the safety of these decontamination procedures for everybody and can be evaluated for improvement by others. Our physicist, Dr. Indermeet Kohli, used these protocols and procedures to ensure we treated the entire surface of the mask with UVC light, and Dr. Alexis Lyons worked to ensure the masks continued to fit and function providers properly following the light treatment. Dr. Shanthi Narla supported our virology collaboration. Dr. Angela Torres reviewed literature to establish the optimal wavelength and worked with research manager Angela Miller, who coordinated all these areas to ensure compliance and quality controls were met.

In just four weeks, we’ve decontaminated over 3,000 masks at three hospitals here in Detroit and 15 hospitals elsewhere across the country. This number is growing each day—and we’re sharing our learnings with other manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration so that this technology can be deployed by others. While we are awaiting final confirmation, our research show that our efforts have effectively decontaminated the masks.

This pandemic truly requires all hands on deck working together, regardless of specialty or expertise, to protect our healthcare providers and our communities.

The infectious disease physician's perspective

Mayur Ramesh, MD

“Like many other hospitals, our frontline providers are using masks conservatively to pace us through the COVID-19 response. Masks and other personal protective equipment, like gowns and gloves, keep us safe as we treat patients with this disease and ensure that we are not spreading germs when we return home to our families or take part in essential activities like grocery shopping or commuting. Dr. Hamzavi and his team have been instrumental in applying their dermatology expertise to discover a new way to clean masks that is helping all frontline health care professionals. I feel much safer providing patient care during this pandemic knowing my mask is clean and safe.”

─ Mayur Ramesh, MD, Senior Staff Physician, Division of Infectious Diseases, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, Michigan

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