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Colorado State University to Lead Testing Qualification for Protective Masks in COVID-19 Fight

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Written by Mike Hooker on March 26, 2020

Colorado State University has been asked by Gov. Jared Polis and the State of Colorado to organize testing of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect the state’s healthcare workers from the COVID-19 virus. CSU’s role will be to initiate and coordinate testing to provide recommendations to the state on PPE distribution. 

The governor announced CSU’s role on March 25 as the state prepared to receive shipments of urgently needed PPE from outside the state as well as PPE that could be manufactured in Colorado. CSU’s priority will be on testing PPEs that either meet – or are close to –  existing federal requirements. 

The testing network for assessing PPE qualification includes a partnership of research institutions across the state that will consider items such as masks, face shields and respirators. 

Prioritizing protective masks 

CSU Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph says N95 masks coming from outside the state will be the initial testing priority at CSU. The university’s role will also be to make recommendations to the state on the suitability of a PPE mask for large-scale production and distribution to healthcare workers in Colorado. 

“Our first focus will be on testing masks that meet or are close to N95 respirator specifications coming from outside the state,” said Rudolph. “We are doing this to prioritize testing of masks to help protect medical healthcare professionals in the state who may be exposed to the virus while providing healthcare services.” 

CSU could eventually add testing of other PPEs such as face shields, gowns and other types of respirators. 

“Our lab at CSU has the engineering expertise and facilities necessary to reproduce federal protocols for testing respirator performance,” said John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering at CSU. Volckens heads CSU’s Center for Energy Development and Health, which will be conducting the testing to determine if the masks effectively filter out the virus particles when fitted properly. 

“By conducting these tests in-state, we hope to ensure that personal protective equipment is reliable and immediately available to Colorado healthcare professionals working on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic,” Volckens said. 

CSU will work in parallel with other clinical facilities, academic institutions, and federal labs based in Colorado to set up a second site for rapid assessment of PPE solutions. Many of these facilities are engaged in development of a wide range of creative solutions for PPE needs across the state. 

“We routinely test for fit of respirators used by our CSU community and could extend capabilities for these trials if requested by the State of Colorado, as resources permit,” said Joni Triantis Van Sickle, occupational health administrator of CSU Environmental Health Services. “Respirator styles may fit differently on various individuals. Our testing data could help provide information to health and emergency response organizations for more effective and efficient fit testing of their employees.” 

Producers of PPE products that may qualify for testing can find more information online here. Initially, products will be considered as follows: 

CSU’s research and testing teams will prioritize testing of PPE masks that are at, or close to, N95 specifications which can be found at the FDA N95 Respirators and Surgical Masks/Face Masks information page, and at the NIOSH N95 standards page

Other considerations for qualifying for testing include the manufacturer’s ability to mass-produce the PPE rapidly, affordability, and specifications that address barrier protection of individuals exposed to the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 virus). 

CSU COVID-19 research 

In addition to the PPE testing, CSU researchers are active in a range of COVID-19 research, applying the university’s broad and deep expertise in understanding and mitigating regional and global chronic and emergent infectious diseases. More information on these COVID-19 research efforts at CSU is available online here.   

This story was originally written for CSU Source.