They look very different than the standard N95 masks that have become so famous — and so hard to come by — in the struggle to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But the heavy-duty, industrial-grade P100 respirators do their job quite effectively, and Allegheny Health Network (AHN) is now using them in the fight against COVID-19.

“We wanted to be proactive and thinking outside of the box because the rest of the world is also trying to buy N95s,” says Dr. Sri Chalikonda, AHN’s chief medical operations officer. “I think the real special thing, for our network anyway, is by distributing them the way that we did, we’ve really significantly eliminated our dependence on the disposable N95s.”

Officially called Advantage 200 LS Half-Mask Respirators, the masks are made by Cranberry-based MSA and will  be used by AHN’s ICU and emergency departments and any caregiver working with possible COVID-positive patients.

AHN has purchased approximately 5,000 of them, says Chalikonda. They feature a tight-fitting facepiece that covers the nose and mouth with two removable filter cartridges.

The P100 was designed for a much different sort of job.

“While the N95 is rated to filter out about 95 percent of (airborne) particles, these are closest to 100 percent,” says Chalikonda. “So it’s actually higher performance. These are really (usually) used in industrial uses, where workers are exposed to things like asbestos and other noxious chemicals and particles.”

P100 protective mask. Photo courtesy of Allegheny Health Network.

“They’re meant to be reusable,” explains Chalikonda. “We disinfect them after every use, between shifts, so they’re ready to go for the next caregiver.”

“We follow a process where they’re wiped with a disinfectant wipe — and then they’re taken down to our central sterile processing, where they’re thoroughly taken apart and cleaned with a disinfectant created by MSA.”

Making doctors and nurses feel safe is crucial to facing down the pandemic.

“Overall, it’s had a positive effect on the morale and confidence of our frontline caregivers,” says Chalikonda.

AHN began using the P100 masks last week. They also began a new process to clean N95 masks, so those can be used up to three times — using in-house equipment that is normally used to sterilize and decontaminate surgical tools.

They have been ordering face shields from Homewood-based backpack manufacturer Day Owl (formerly Thread). Combined, these efforts should expand AHN’s supply of critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

So far, AHN has not seen the massive surge in COVID-19 patients that was feared.

“We’re very lucky — we’re like the rest of the city,” says Chalikonda. “We have patients in-house, but we’re not anywhere close to being overwhelmed. We still have plenty of capacity for ICUs, ventilators, etcetera.”

They are hopeful that social distancing is working. “We obviously don’t know what would happen if we didn’t do it. But we assume that that was a major factor because we’re not seeing the same types of surges other cities are seeing, who were maybe not as proactive in doing it. Whatever the reason, we are hopeful that we’ve flattened our curve significantly.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.