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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

"Why would you think that it's OK to wear a potentially contaminated mask, from room to room to room?" said Galle, a float nurse at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, speaking in her role as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Professional Local 3669. "In a nurse's heart and mind, that is so disgusting."

A Minneapolis VA spokesman said the hospital has held its COVID-19 employee infection rate to 0.74% of its workforce, and it is providing all employees with required personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Hospital officials say they have no choice but to reuse masks because the global supply remains constrained ahead of a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

"We do safely reuse N95 respirator masks to conserve supply now and ensure we'll have enough in the event of a COVID surge," David Martinson, spokesman for Bloomington, Minnesota-based health system and insurer HealthPartners, said via email. "While it's difficult to predict how a second wave might impact PPE levels, the decontamination methods we use have helped us conserve N95s and keep our patients and colleagues safe, and we're confident in our supply quantity."

Health systems like Allina Health and North Memorial Health stressed that they're following mask-use guidance published by the CDC and the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"We are confident in the level of PPE protection that's provided to our staff and patients, whether that be a surgical/procedural mask or an N95 when treating COVID patients," wrote Christine Hill, spokeswoman for Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis.

 

N95s protect the wearer, while looser-fitting surgical masks and cloth masks worn in public protect the people around them by blocking microscopic droplets in their breath that can spread the virus. In hospitals and clinics, health care providers sometimes wear surgical masks or full face shields over their N95s to preserve the mask.

In the government recommendations, mask decontamination is depicted as a strategy of last resort.

Guidelines from the CDC urge a wait-and-reuse approach before considering disinfecting. The CDC says respirators from other countries may be considered, though the Food and Drug Administration has said certain masks made overseas are no longer authorized for distribution in the U.S.

OSHA says decontamination voids the approval granted by the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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