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During COVID-19 Crisis, Medline Pivots To Sterilizing N95 Masks

WAUKEGAN, Ill. (CBS) -- A shortage of personal protective equipment is one of the most frequently-cited concerns across the country.

North suburban medical equipment sterilization company Medline is transitioning its operations to sterilize N95 masks and send them out to medical providers.

Frank Czajka, president of Medline ReNewal, joined CBS 2's Irika Sargent Monday via Skype.

The company is looking at reprocessing 100,000 masks a day.

"What we're doing is collecting the masks that are used in the facilities across the country every day, and we're putting them through an exhaustive sort. Those that pass muster and the ear loops are intact; the straps that hold them to the face are intact; no blemishes, are then put into containment for sterilization, and they're shipped right out back to health care," Czajka said.

Medline had until now been sterilizing medical equipment using a chemical called ethylene oxide, which is under investigation for its alleged harmful effects. Medline's Waukegan plant was even closed for a time, but has reopened.

Sargent asked Czajka what has changed to ensure the community's safety.

"We just finished a $10 million improvement to our facility here in Waukegan, Illinois, and ethylene oxide is a very common sterilant used for medical supplies – in fact, probably the most common sterilizer for medical supplies used in hospitals and health care facilities," he said.

Czajka said the Waukegan facility has been improved to ensure that anything going on in the environment is well below Environmental Protection Agency limits.

With the new program of sterilizing N95 masks, Medline has applied for federal approval. But Czajka said the company can already send masks out and has already done so.

"It's really about the claim sets that we can make about the masks, so in order for them to pass N95, we need a seal of approval from the FDA," Czajka said. "We're working on a daily basis talking with them."

Sargent also asked Czajka how it would be determined who gets the sterilized masks.

"They're going back to the same systems that are signing up to get involved with our process, because there's a lot of work that goes into this. They have to collect these masks after use and send them to our facility in Oregon," Czajka said. "So as soon as they get back to health care, they're going to be doled out to those folks that are seen every day on the front lines."

You may remember CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini's reporting led to the Matt Haller Act being signed last year, requiring facilities to limit emissions of ethylene oxide by 99.9 percent.

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