Nurses, researchers, and workplace safety officers worry new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might reduce protection against the coronavirus and other airborne pathogens in hospitals.
A CDC advisory committee has been updating its 2007 standards for infection control in hospitals this year. Many health care professionals and scientists expressed outrage after the group released a draft of its proposals in June.
The draft controversially concluded that N95 face masks are equivalent to looser, surgical face masks in certain settings — and that doctors and nurses need to wear only surgical masks when treating patients infected by “common, endemic” viruses, like those that cause the seasonal flu.
The committee was slated to vote on the changes on Aug. 22, but it postponed action until November. Once the advice is final, the CDC begins a process of turning the committee’s assessment into guidelines that hospitals throughout the United States typically follow. After the meeting, members of the public expressed concern about where the CDC was headed, especially as COVID-19 cases rise. Nationwide, hospital admissions and deaths due to COVID have been increasing for several consecutive weeks.
“Health care facilities are where some of the most vulnerable people in our population have to frequent or stay,” said Gwendolyn Hill, a research intern at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, after the committee’s presentation. She said N95 masks, ventilation, and air-purifying technology can lower rates of COVID transmission within hospital walls and “help ensure that people are not leaving sicker than they came.”
“We are very happy to receive feedback,” Alexander Kallen, chief of the Prevention and Response Branch in the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, told KFF Health News. “It is our goal to develop a guideline that is protective of patients, visitors, and health workers.” He added that the draft guidelines are far from final.
In June, members of the CDC’s group — the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee — presented a draft of their report, citing studies that found no difference in infection rates among health providers who wore N95 masks versus surgical masks in the clinic. They noted flaws in the data. For example, many health workers who got COVID in the trials were not infected while wearing their masks at work. But still, they concluded the masks were equivalent.
Their conclusion runs contrary to the CDC’s 2022 report, which found that an N95 mask cuts the odds of testing positive for the coronavirus by 83%, compared with 66% for surgical masks and 56% for cloth masks. It also excludes a large clinical trial published in 2017 finding that N95 masks were far superior to surgical masks in protecting health workers from influenza infections. And it contradicts an extensive evaluation by the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, finding that N95 masks, also called N95 respirators, were more effective against COVID than surgical masks in health care settings around the world.
“It’s shocking to suggest that we need more studies to know whether N95 respirators are effective against an airborne pathogen,” said Kaitlin Sundling, a physician and pathologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a comment following the June meeting. “The science of N95 respirators is well established and based on physical properties, engineered filtered materials, and our scientific understanding of how airborne transmission works.”
Her assertion is backed by the California occupational safety agency, Cal/OSHA, whose rules on protecting at-risk workers from infections might be at odds with the CDC’s if the proposals are adopted. “The CDC must not undermine respiratory protection regulation by making the false and misleading claim that there is no difference in protection” between N95 masks and surgical masks, commented Deborah Gold, an industrial hygienist at Cal/OSHA, at the August meeting.
©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.