Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is a hidden gem in the medical field and it happens to be on San Antonio’s southeast side.
Eyes from around the world are honing in, on this specialty tuberculosis hospital, the only one left in the nation. But that’s not why it’s getting all this attention.
The hospital could have the answer to the personal protective equipment crisis facing medical workers around the country. They have reusable masks.
"We are the only center in the U.S. which uses elastomeric masks routinely,” Dr. Annie Kizilbash said.
Kizilbash is an associate professor in Internal Medicine and the Medical Director at The Texas Center for Infectious Disease or TCID.
She says the Elastomeric North 7700 Respirator is Hypoallergenic and made 100 percent of silicon and the center has 130 of these masks being routinely used.
TCID is organized under the Texas Department of State Health Services under the public health division. The hospital specializes in treating tuberculosis patients.
Dr. Kizilbash says the Elastomeric is highly effective against airborne diseases such as Tuberculosis. She says the center has used them since 1996 and not once did an employee test positive for TB.
“They use P100 filters. What that means is that they’re oil proof and the 100 part means they’re 99.97% effective against airborne particles which is more so than the N95 which is 95% effective.”
So why after all those years are other medical facilities just finding out about these reusable masks?
Kizilbash says the TCID became the focus after the first coronavirus patients from the Diamond Princess Cruise ship landed in San Antonio in February.
“The physicians working and taking care of these patients, they used our elastomerics and shared the word as to how effective they were and how safe they felt in them.”
Before she sees her patients, Dr. Kizilbash puts on one of these Elastomeric Respirators. She says while the mask effectively protects medical workers, it does have a few disadvantages.
Employees are not allowed to take them home. They leave them in a locker at the end of the day and they have to be cleaned each time they’re used.
"You have to clean them so between patients you'd have to be careful to make sure to disinfect the mask and you can make sure to use 70% alcohol wipe.”
Aside from regular cleaning, Kizilbash said one main difference from the N95 mask is the valve.
"They have an exhalation valve which means you can breathe your germs if you have the disease and potentially infect the patient. Because it has a valve unlike the N95 which you can breathe out from.”
But she added you can easily cover the mask with a surgical mask or shield.
As for the cost, she says it’s significant. For 170 employees, Kizilbash says the disposable N95 masks costs the center more than 44 thousand dollars a year. The Reusable Elastomeric masks cost just over two thousand dollars and only needs a filter change once a year.
“These masks can be used for years if you take care of them.”
Honeywell makes the reusable Elastomeric masks. KENS 5 called the company’s helpline and they told us, the half masks have been on backorder since the coronavirus pandemic started.
Dr. Kizilbash said they bought them 2 years ago for $35 but the company said they now start more than $42 dollars a mask.