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Petaluma dentist sterilizes masks for free

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On a normal day, the Petaluma Dental Group’s dentists and hygienists would be busy with back-to-back appointments and teeth cleanings, using their five autoclave sanitizing machines nearly non-stop to clean dental equipment for each patient.

But with non-urgent dental care suspended amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Yolanda Mangrum decided her practice could use the machines for a new purpose, offering to sanitize community members’ masks free of charge.

“Thinking forward and understanding this virus, I think it’s important that as we’re sharing things, we pay attention to sanitizing in ways that people are not accustomed to thinking about,” Mangrum said. “It’s our everyday life in healthcare to do this, so that’s what I can offer the community at this time.”

Mangrum accepted her first mask-drop offs Monday afternoon, sanitizing about 50 home-made masks that local artisans and sewist groups have been churning out since the start of the public health emergency. She estimates her office can process 500 masks in a 2-hour period if she uses all five autoclaves at once.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase issued an order Monday requiring all residents wear protective face coverings in public, beginning Friday. Those caught without a face mask could be on the hook for misdemeanor charges and a fine.

With this new order, Mangrum is expecting requests to sanitize masks to increase over the coming weeks.

“There’s a lot unknown and uncertain right now, so getting this going to assure people there isn’t any contamination felt like a service I could easily provide right now,” Mangrum said.

The Centers for Disease Control and county officials recommended fabric face coverings be washed at least once a day, preferably after each use, specifying a washing machine cycle as a sufficient method.

Mangrum said she hopes her free service will offer an added layer of protection and quell heightened anxieties among the public over sanitation and virus transmission.

It’s an added comfort for CEO of the Petaluma Health Care District Ramona Faith, who has partnered with the dental office to sanitize large quantities of masks for health workers should the need arise over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If it gets to a point where hospital workers need to go to community masks, they would need them sterilized,” Faith said. “But at this moment, Petaluma has enough N95 and surgical masks for health workers.”

With a national shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPEs, Petaluma health care workers and first responders have been working to shore up supplies and ensure medical-grade equipment is reserved for those on the front lines. As a result, the public is discouraged from using the medical-grade masks, with Sonoma County officials telling the public not to purchase N95 masks in order to protect the supply.

The recent order from the county mandating masks recommends fabric face coverings, including stitched masks, bandanas, scarves, neck gaiters, or other similar homemade covers extending from over the nose to the chin.

“This order is a good idea, it’s just another level of protection for everyone,” Faith said. “And some people may want them sanitized, like people with autoimmune diseases.”

Anyone can call Mangrum Monday through Friday during normal business hours to confirm a time and drop off as many homemade masks as they want at the office’s front door. At the urging of a sewist patient who makes masks for a local organization, Mangrum says she has tested common materials such as elastics to ensure they can withstand the machine’s high temperatures.

“There’s been a misconception among people I’ve spoken with that the elastic will melt, but we’ve done testing and we know they stand up, so that shouldn’t discourage anyone,” Mangrum said.

It takes between one and two hours for each machine to complete a sanitizing cycle, after which individuals can pick up their masks in a sanitized bag.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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