Some doctors treating coronavirus patients in New York are already reusing face masks because they're running out of supplies
Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
- Doctors treating coronavirus patients in at least two New York hospitals are reusing their masks to conserve their supply of medical gear.
- Generally, face masks are designed to be used once. It's not clear if N95 masks, which protect from airborne diseases, are safe to use repeatedly or for extended periods of time.
- Doctors at both hospitals described a paper bag system, where medical workers receive a paper bag to hold a single mask they can use repeatedly before swapping it out for a different one.
- The US is experiencing a severe shortage of N95 masks.
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Doctors treating coronavirus patients in two hospitals in the New York City area are taking steps to conserve their supplies of protective gear, amid a nationwide shortage.In both hospitals, doctors using N95 respirators are being told to reuse them by keeping them in a bag and putting them on again later. N95 masks filter particles out of the air, and are commonly used when doctors are caring for patients with infectious diseases that spread through the air. Normally, doctors use a new mask for each patient or procedure.
Normally, doctors can obtain N95 masks, which provide a higher degree of protection than surgical masks, freely, according to the doctor. But the supply of N95 respirators has been severely limited.Business Insider is not identifying the doctors at their request so that they can speak freely about the mask shortages at their hospitals without professional repercussions. Neither hospital immediately commented on the issues raised in this article.
N95 masks are a tight-fitting type of mask that's highly effective at filtering out airborne particles, such as the type that carry the coronavirus. Surgical face masks are less effective and are generally not recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect people from airborne diseases. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, neither should be used more than once.The CDC recently changed its guidelines for mask use to respond to the shortage of N95 respirators. In places with shortages, it now says that N95 masks can be reserved for coronavirus cases involving "procedures that are likely to generate respiratory aerosols" - meaning that airborne particles carrying the virus would be flying about. In other cases, medical staff can wear surgical masks.
One of the doctors said that at their hospital, physicians are only permitted to use N95 masks when dealing with a situation that poses a high risk of catching an airborne disease - such as treating COVID-19 patients, or people tested for the coronavirus but who have not yet received their results - and must continue using the same mask until it's unusable.
"It's impossible to get the N95 unless you have real, direct patient contact," a doctor in one hospital said. "And even for those, they're giving you one a day and telling you to reuse it for half a day."The United States is suffering from a shortage of N95 masks amid a rash of panic-buying and stealing.
"It's happening because of the shortage," the doctor at the New York City hospital said. "It's strange seeing people walking around the streets with N95s knowing that the people on the front line don't have them."
The paper bag system
Cases of coronavirus have been increasing quickly.And the virus has led to unprecedented nationwide measures to isolate people from one another and flatten the curve of likely deaths and illnesses. New York has 1,500 confirmed cases, more than any other state.
While not using the masks, doctors are supposed to keep the masks in their bags to keep them secure.
AP Photo/ Pat Roque
But it's not clear if this system is safe for medical workers."Who says, like if you put it in a paper bag, the virus that's on the outer part of it can't go to the inner part of it?" a doctor at one of the hospitals told Insider.The CDC has said its recommendation that doctors can use surgical masks instead of N95 masks is based on "local and regional situational analysis of [protective equipment] supplies."
Elsewhere on its website, the CDC lists the risks to reusing N95 masks and of using them for extended periods. Doctors need to be very careful handling an N95 mask that's going to be reused to avoid contaminating it.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Both doctors said that their hospitals have enough N95 masks in the short-term to be available in high-risk situations. But doctors are worried they won't last long.
We don't know when more supplies will comeaccording to BuzzFeed News.
The delays in supplies - as well as testing - is causing logistical nightmares. A doctor at one of the hospitals said that it takes three days to receive the results of a coronavirus test. In the interim, patients need to be isolated until those results come back, leading to a shortage of places to put them."We have to rule out everyone with symptoms and isolate them," the doctor said. "That takes up space, room-wise, until they get the results back."
"Those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for health care workers to be protected from a respiratory disease," Pence said at a White House briefing.
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