WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense is finalizing a contract to buy 60 sterilization units that can clean up to 80,000 N95 masks per day, a potential burst of good news in the ongoing fight against the new coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The $415 million contract to Battelle comes through the Defense Logistics Agency on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Department of Homeland Security will prioritize which cities will receive the decontamination units, which should all be available by early May.

Battelle, a nonprofit headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, says its Critical Care Decontamination System uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to safely decontaminate the N95 masks. While those masks are supposed to be used only once, the new system should allow masks to be reused up to 20 times. When all 60 units are active, it should allow 4.8 million masks to be sterilized per day, or almost 34 million per week, per the DoD.

The N95 mask has emerged as a symbol of the lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, available to medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. Numerous stories have identified a serious shortage of the masks, which are more effective in protecting the wearer against germs than more commonly used surgical masks.

“I remain extremely proud of the selfless efforts of Department of Defense personnel who continue to do everything they can to help provide medical masks, test kits, medicine and meals to support America’s military, medical, emergency services and law enforcement professionals who are on the front lines and need them most,” said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

The organization is conducting tests to see whether its system will also be effective on other PPE items, such as surgical masks and ventilator parts. (The Army this week is launching a competition to encourage production of ventilators among industry.)

Battelle has already set up two machines in the New York City area, as well as one each in Chicago, Illinois; Tacoma, Washington; Columbus, Ohio; and in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A solicitation on the organization’s website, found by the Boston Globe, says the group anticipates a need of at least 2,300 workers for 100 sites — or 23 staff per site, which is expected to run 24 hours a day. The $20 per hour job is expected to last at least four weeks.

“We are anticipating a surge over the next two months,” the solicitation read.

The news comes two days after the DoD launched its first use of the Defense Production Act Title 3 for a COVID-19 project — a $133 million investment to increase production capacity of N95 masks. The Pentagon estimates the investments should increase domestic production of the masks to more than 39 million in the next 90 days.

The department has yet to release the names of the companies receiving that funding.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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