The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust many medical technologies into the spotlight. Ultraviolet (UV) disinfection systems – devices that use light from the UV spectrum to disinfect surfaces – are one of those technologies. “We’re getting questions every day about ways hospitals can use these systems to help stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” explains Mairead Smith, senior project engineer in ECRI’s device evaluation group.
ECRI’s evaluations of two different configurations – moveable towers used for room disinfection and countertop models designed to disinfect tablets, phones and other small devices – show that the technology can effectively reduce bioburden on surfaces. With respect to SARS-CoV-2 in particular, experts expect its response will be similar to other coronaviruses, like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, which have been shown to be inactivated by UV light. “But,” Smith stresses, “proper use is key.”
Note: This article was developed in early April 2020. With the rapid pace of change associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges facing hospitals and the evidence supporting various methods may evolve substantially by the time of publication.
Disinfecting with UV Light
At the right wavelengths and with an appropriate exposure time, UV energy can disrupt the DNA or RNA of microorganisms that are exposed to the light, preventing them from replicating. Studies indicate that sufficient exposure to UV light can inactivate a wide range of microbes, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridioides difficile (C. diff). Most UV disinfection devices use UVC light – that is, light within the 200-280 nm range, although some systems use UVB or far-UV wavelengths.
Within a health care facility, the technology may be applied in various ways:
When used properly and as a supplement to normal cleaning and disinfection processes, UV disinfection can be effective at reducing the environmental bioburden in a facility. However, UV disinfection technology may be less effective, or on occasion dangerous, if not used properly.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been suggested that UV disinfection units could be used to disinfect N95 respirators to help address personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. At the time of this writing, ECRI considers that approach acceptable in limited reuse situations, but cautions that UV disinfection could (1) be ineffective at successfully deactivating pathogens located deep within the layers of filter material or (2) damage the respirator in a way that reduces its effectiveness, such as by degrading the elasticity of the strap that secures the mask to the wearer. Research in this area is evolving rapidly, however, and recommendations may change by the date of publication.
9 Things to Know about UV Disinfection
The safe and effective use of UV disinfection devices requires a clear understanding of what the technology can and can’t do. ECRI stresses the following points in its studies:
This article is adapted from ECRI’s evaluations of UV room disinfection systems and countertop UV disinfection devices. Additional guidance is also available through ECRI’s COVID-19 Resource Center, a free public resource to help hospitals protect healthcare workers and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access that site at www.ecri.org/coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak-preparedness-center. To learn more about ECRI’s device evaluation program, visit https://www.ecri.org/solutions/device-evaluations, or contact ECRI at (610) 825-6000, ext. 5891, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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