A mobile waste sterilizing unit is on its way by truck from Tracy to New York City to help relieve the serious shortage of protective personal equipment for health care workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
The flatbed truck carrying the unit on its five-day cross-country journey pulled out of the San-I-Pak yard at 11th Street and Bird Road on Monday morning. The 3,000-pound sterilizing unit will be used by the Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital in New York City to recycle specific types of surgical masks, isolation gowns, eye protection and booties.
Technology developed over the past four decades by the Tracy-based sterilization unit manufacturing firm will be used in the Bronx VA Hospital to steam-sterilize protective gear of cloth made from linen, polycarbonate, polyester and polypropylene, all of which have been determined to be suitable for steam sterilization, explained Arthur McCoy, executive vice president of San-I-Pak.
Surgical masks, but not N-95s, can also be sterilized for reuse by the San-I-Pak unit, he reported.
“We’ve talked to the director of the VA hospital, and he said they’re running out of PPE,” McCoy said. “That’s why we’re getting this unit sent out to them.”
It will take an estimated 43 hours for the truck and its two drivers, Aaron Sypolt, San-I-Pak service manager, and Shawn Steele, service supervisor, to reach New York City as soon as Friday.
“Once we’re there, it should take two days to set up the portable unit and then another day at least to train the hospital personnel how to use it,” Sypolt said.
Before the truck could start its journey to New York City, the portable sterilization unit had to be constructed in the San-I-Pak plant in a greatly accelerated production schedule, reported Ramon Flores, the company president who heads manufacturing.
“Usually it takes six months to build a unit, and we did it in three weeks,” he reported. “I’ll have to give a lot of credit to the guys,” he said. “They understood how important this was, so everyone worked really hard and worked overtime to make it happen.”
The portable sterilization unit on its way to New York City has the basic San-I-Pak sterilization cycle — a minimum of 270 degrees of steam heat for 30 minutes — but without the compaction element. It does, however, have pre- and post-sterilization vacuum processes that allow the sterilized material — gowns, for example — to emerge dry and ready for use.
Tests conducted at the factory and also at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital gauged the ability of the sterilization unit to perform as required in PPE recycling, processing up to 150 pounds of waste an hour.
It was 40 years ago, in January 1980, that San-I-Pak’s first sterilization and compaction unit for infectious waste was installed at the Tracy hospital by inventors Don Stortroen and Mike Brown.
Interest in the San-I-Pak unit increased more than a decade ago with the H5N1 influenza outbreak. Post-pandemic studies questioned the ability of the supply chain for PPE supplies to meet greatly increased demand of a pandemic, McCoy reported.
“That started us doing a series of tests with different types of PPE to figure out what we could reprocess in the San-I-Pak and what materials would survive,” he said.
He said the cooperation of Sutter Tracy Community Hospital and the Department of Veterans Affairs was important to successful testing and development of the mobile waste sterilization unit now en route to New York City.