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Still in short supply, N95 masks are being used over and over

Joe Carlson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in News & Features

Imagine breathing through a face-hugging N95 mask for an entire eight-hour nursing shift on a hospital floor.

Properly fitted, it clings tightly to the skin, protecting the wearer from breathing in pathogens such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But those filtered-out germs don't just vanish -- the novel coronavirus can live up to 72 hours on surfaces, masks included. Just touching the outside of a contaminated respirator is risky, and it's considered the biggest danger of reusing them.

Yet three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and other clinicians are being forced to reuse hospital masks in ways that would have gotten them written up a year ago.

Mask-maker 3M Co., based in Maplewood, Minnesota, said Friday that despite doubling its production of N95 respirators this year, global demand continues to far exceed the supply for the entire industry. With too few respirators to go around, hospital administrators are left to decide how best to protect their staffs, even as some evidence suggests health care workers are transmitting the virus among themselves while at work.

Tight-fitting N95 masks -- designed to protect the wearer by trapping 95% of particles of a specific tiny size -- are in such demand that hospitals are doing everything they can to extend a mask's life, from storing them in paper bags hanging on the wall to using UV light and hydrogen peroxide to clean and disinfect them.

 

Rather than using and discarding several N95s per day, a common practice before the pandemic, nurses and other clinicians now wear a single mask for an eight-hour shift or longer. That mask is then used again for up to five nonconsecutive shifts, hospitals and nurses say.

After that, the masks are often put in storage in preparation for a future surge.

To kill the virus, some hospitals are using machines that zap the masks with ultraviolet light, or bathe them in vaporized hydrogen peroxide. A more common strategy, described in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to put used masks in separate paper bags where they can air out until any virus dies.

Barb Galle, a registered nurse, said guidance on reusing masks well past their intended life is influenced more by supply problems than safe-practice considerations.

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