A new N95 mask decontamination system in Idaho Falls can handle up to 80,000 face masks a day, and while it is cleaning masks for medical and emergency services providers throughout the state, so far it is running well under its capacity.

This extra capacity, Gov. Brad Little hopes, will help keep the state in good shape if there is a spike in coronavirus cases as restaurants, bars and other businesses reopen, as public gatherings resume and as more hospitals start to perform elective surgeries again.

“Every one of those, you have a chance where you may have an increase. ... It’s the right (course of action) to have the capacity, because they’re essential,” Little said Monday.

Little was in Idaho Falls on Monday touring a facility run by Battelle, the contractor that oversees day-to-day operations at Idaho National Laboratory, where four of Battelle’s Critical Care Decontamination Systems started running recently.

Battelle started work on the machines after the SARS outbreak of 2015 in response to a request from the Centers for Disease Control, said Kendra Versendaal, a research scientist at Battelle and site lead at the Idaho Falls Critical Care Decontamination System site. The machines were designed at Battelle’s laboratory in West Jefferson, Ohio, and clean the masks by pumping hydrogen peroxide into a sealed chamber. The N95 masks can be decontaminated and reused up to 20 times, Versendaal said. She said Battelle is researching ways to decontaminate other forms of personal protective equipment such as face shields and surgical masks.

Little said he started to look into procuring a decontamination system for Idaho after hearing about it from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and realizing they were made by Battelle, with their extensive ties to Idaho Falls. The federal government awarded Battelle a contract last month to deploy 60 of its decontamination systems around the country. The one in Idaho Falls is available to serve Wyoming and parts of Utah as well as Idaho, and will clean masks for medical providers and emergency services departments for free, even paying to ship them back as part of the federal contract.

Versendaal said they hope more institutions and organizations will sign up to use their decontamination system. So far, she said, medical providers and emergency responders from throughout Idaho, not just eastern Idaho, have signed up to use the decontamination system, but none in neighboring states.

“Our first responders, our health care providers, they’re the ones that keep us safe and healthy,” Versendaal said.

Little issued a stay-home order in late March directing businesses deemed nonessential to close their physical locations. Starting on May 1, he launched a two-month plan to gradually reopen them. Restaurants, indoor gyms and salons were authorized to reopen starting Saturday, joining the wide range of retail businesses that were authorized to reopen earlier, and bars will join them starting May 30 if everything goes according to plan. Little has said maintaining adequate medical capacity would be an important factor in proceeding with reopening, including supplies of personal protective equipment, to deal with any increased demand.

The decline in business activity and a sharp spike in unemployment that have accompanied the coronavirus are expected to lead to a significant drop in state revenue compared to projections, meaning there will be budget cuts in the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Little sent a memo to school superintendents earlier this month to plan for a likely 5% budget cut, and his budget director, Alex Adams told the Idaho Press that larger cuts elsewhere in the state budget are likely.

“We forecast up to a 14% reduction in revenue coming in. ... That’s an educated guess,” Little said Monday.

Little extended this year’s income tax filing deadline from April 15 to June 15, and he said state officials will have a better idea of the 2021 fiscal year budget picture after that. However, he said he expects the state will have to deal with a revenue shortfall with some mix of spending cuts and using savings and federal coronavirus relief funds to plug budget holes.

Medical or emergency services providers can visit battelle.org/decon for more information or to sign up to use the decontamination system.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.