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Jax hates germs

One moment, the St. Mary's School classroom is wrapped in shadow. Then it's bathed in quick pulses of bright light.

The ultraviolet glow comes from a trash-can-sized robot on wheels named Jax that looks like it could be related to R2D2 from "Star Wars." But the light isn't just intended as a show. Officials from the Xenex Germ Zapping Robots company say it's hard at work killing germs and bacteria on every surface it touches. School officials say the demonstration is two-fold: disinfect school rooms with zaps of light — reportedly 25,000 times brighter than the sun — and educate students about how it's done. 

"We're connected to Xenex through a friend of the school who offered to come down and treat as much of the school as they could just as a service to the school," said St. Mary's middle school Vice Principal Chris Johnson. "One of the things that we're really concerned about is making sure that we have a safe environment and a clean environment for our employees and for our students, and being able to take advantage of this technology was a great opportunity for us."

Jackson County cases of recent bugs affecting schools have been scant, with three recent cases of norovirus reported in the Medford School District. The Klamath Falls Herald & News newspaper reported that 24 students were sickened by the virus across several public schools in the county the week before Thanksgiving. The Grants Pass Daily Courier reported that Fleming Middle School in the Three Rivers School District shut down for a day earlier this month after a third of its students fell ill with norovirus.

James Chung, business development manager for the Texas-based Xenex, says Jax's UVC light is powered by xenon gas. He says the robots are used primarily in hospitals — reportedly more than 300 last count — as a means to prevent the spread of infections such as norovirus, MRSA and a bacterium called c. diff in hospitals. 

"Within four to five minutes it's able to basically kill the germ on a cellular level," Chung said. 

Each robot costs about $100,000, he said. 

The company's website has published multiple studies from hospitals and medical facilities that use the technology, along with the reductions in types of viruses and bacteria researchers recorded. 

In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's report "Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities, 2008," the agency says there are "several" applications for use of ultraviolet light, and that "the application of UV radiation in the health-care environment (i.e., operating rooms, isolation rooms, and biologic safety cabinets) is limited to destruction of airborne organisms or inactivation of microorganisms on surfaces."

Carleen Lawrence, an infection preventionist and former Providence Medford Medical Center nurse, said the technology is "exciting" for someone in her field.

"What is the chance that someone could come in and clean every surface here?" Lawrence asked St. Mary's eighth-grade students. "Those rays, the ultraviolet, can reach them."

Eighth-grade science teacher Lia Kirkpatrick said the timing of Jax's visit was perfect. Her students, who got a front-row seat to the demonstration — on the other side of the classroom's windows while averting their eyes — are learning about the electromagnetic spectrum and are starting a section on the periodic table. 

"Anytime you can make a connection between what students are learning in class and the real world, the better," Kirkpatrick said. "It makes it more applicable for them. And interesting." 

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Zavier Bodager, 14, takes a picture of a robot that is used to clean a room of germs using ultraviolet light during a demonstration at St. Mary's School in Medford on Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
James Chung, business development manager for Xenex, explains how the technology works. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch