MIAMI (CBSMiami) – In early May, Governor Ron DeSantis heralded the arrival of a new, massive piece of equipment in the fight against the Coronavirus – a Battelle CCDS, also known as the Critical Care Decontamination System.
“This decontamination system allows you to clean things like N-95 masks,” the Governor said during a press conference at the Hard Rock Stadium where the shipping container sized machines were set up.
“It can decontaminate up to 80,000 masks per day,” DeSantis boasted. “So, you’ll have hospital systems, they can send in 20,000 – 30,000, whatever they have for masks – they can be decontaminated and then sent back in a couple of days.”
A month later the Battelle equipment is being packed up. Effective Thursday, the state had decided to shut down the decontamination units.
“It’s just too expensive to continue to run it, which is why we’ve demobilized it,” said Jared Moskowitz, the state’s emergency management director.
In an interview with CBS4 News, Moskowitz said that in the 30 days the machines were operating they decontaminated only 597 masks.
“I can tell you from my end to clean six hundred masks, you’re talking, hundreds upon hundreds of dollars per mask,” he explained. “Over five hundred dollars per mask to clean the six hundred masks.”
[UPDATE: After this story was published, Moskowitz provided updated numbers. The total number of masks cleaned over 30 days was 3,592 – still far short of the 2.4 million masks the Battelle system was capable of cleaning during that time. Using the updated numbers, it cost the state $98 to clean an infected mask at a time when the state is currently able to buy new masks for less than $2 apiece. Moskowitz said even with the updated numbers it makes no sense to keep the Battelle system in place. “We are still demobilizing the units,” he said late Friday.]
The Battelle system was initially pushed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. Battelle is based in Ohio. From there it caught President Trump’s attention.
“As soon as I heard from Mike today, I got involved and the FDA is now involved,” Trump said during a Rose Garden press conference in March. “And we’re trying to get a fast approval for the sterilization of masks.”
The FDA did grant emergency approval for the experimental decontamination system, which uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapors to kill bacteria. But doctors and nurses on the frontlines were skeptical.
“You know, there was just very little science on how safe is this technology,” said Martha Baker, the President of SEIU Local 1991, which represents doctors and nurses at Jackson Health System. “Re-sterilization of masks was a little suspicious. Their first instinct was it was based on supply and demand, not based on science. You know, perhaps desperation.”
There were widespread concerns that the process may kill the virus, but it could also compromise the integrity of the mask, rendering them useless.
“I am just mortified that there is so much mismanagement,” said Congresswoman Donna Shalala. “The fact that the governor of Ohio had lobbied for the company that made these machines, that the President had tweeted and put enormous pressure on the government to get them out, and that no one had been watching the cost of the machines is another example of the absolute mismanagement of this COVID 19 crisis by the Administration.”
Shalala, who served eight years as the head of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration, said she suspects Battelle, a well-known defense contractor, saw an opportunity to participate in the billions of dollars being spent to fight COVID.
NBC News reported this week the initial federal contract for the machines was $60 million but may actually end up costing taxpayers across the country between $400 and $600 million.
“Sloppiness is one thing,” Shalala said. “We’ve always overspent in the Defense Department. They’re used to overspending on planes and ships and everything else. But this is overspending and putting people’s lives at risk. That’s a whole different ballgame and very dangerous. And thank heavens the Florida emergency management people were smart enough to withdraw the machines.”
Moskowitz said he had not received any complaints about the machines and doesn’t know why more hospitals didn’t take advantage of the equipment.
“I don’t know why they didn’t use it,” he said. “Obviously, we’re in a pandemic. This is a first experience for everybody.”
Moskowitz defended the decision to bring the machines into the state.
“We wanted to make sure, you know, hospitals had every tool in the toolbox, everything that was being offered to us by the federal government,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we took advantage of, but the hospital decided that that this is not something that they wanted to do.”