The Biden administration has taken the first step in ending an emergency exception that allowed hospitals to ration and reuse N95 medical masks, the first line of defense between frontline workers and the deadly coronavirus.
Thousands of healthcare workers have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, many exposed and infected while caring for patients without adequate protection.
The severe shortage of masks, gowns, tampons and other medical supplies has prompted the Trump administration to issue guidelines for suppliers to ration, clean and reuse disposable equipment. Thus, during the pandemic, once a week many doctors and nurses were issued an N95 mask, which is normally designed to be thrown after each patient.
Now US manufacturers claim they have huge surpluses for sale, and hospitals claim to have three to 12 months in stock.
In response, the government says hospitals and healthcare professionals should try to revert to a patient mask.
“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that staff and healthcare facilities move away from crisis capacity retention strategies,” the agency said in a letter to staff and healthcare facilities earlier this month.
The letter is not an order: hospitals are still legally allowed to sterilize and reuse N95s. But in the coming weeks or months, the FDA will publish an updated guide and will eventually require hospitals to switch back to single use, said Suzanne Schwartz, director of the FDA’s office for strategic partnerships and technology innovation.
“The ability to decontaminate was purely a last resort, an extreme measure,” Schwartz said. “From the FDA’s point of view, we need to go back to contingency and conventional strategies, which is to use the respirator for interaction, then dispose of it and get a new one. We are in unison, in sync, with both NIOSH and OSHA in that position. “
The National Nurses Union, the largest professional association of registered nurses in the country, calls the new guide “a small step in the right direction”. But the organization, which represents 170,000 nurses, said management “ultimately fails” to protect nurses because it allows employers to use their discretion as to what the normal supply of N95 is.
“But we know the reality: there is a large supply of N95,” the union said in a statement calling on the administration to update its standards and apply them.
ICU nurse Mike Hill, who works at a Northern California Sutter hospital and is a member of the California Nurses Association, said he and his colleagues still don’t have unlimited access to N95 masks.
“I think it’s ridiculous for Sutter to want to make extended use when the masks are inexpensive, like a dollar apiece. They should want to be sure to protect the nurses, we are the frontline workers, “he said.” It puts us and patients at risk of infection. They were never meant for prolonged use. “
Hill’s colleague, Sutter’s nurse Janine Paiste-Ponder, 59, was among hundreds of healthcare workers who have died after exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace over the past year. Following his death in July 2020, a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation at Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center resulted in $ 155,250 in fines for numerous occupational safety violations related to Covid.
Prestige Ameritech CEO Mike Bowen, whose Fort Worth, Texas factory is the largest U.S. manufacturer of N95 masks, said the devices were designed to be used once, not reused by one patient at the other.
He said he had millions of unsold masks, as did other US manufacturers who invested and increased during the pandemic.
“While nurses demanded clean masks, American N95 manufacturers filled their warehouses with N95 that hospitals didn’t buy. Starting today, US healthcare workers can and should request new and clean N95 masks, “he said.” The shortage of N95 masks is over, “he said.
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said deadly shortcomings are “a national embarrassment and should never happen again.”
“This is good news and demonstrates our progress towards the destruction of COVID-19,” said the California Democrat. “We need to make sure this kind of shortage never happens again by reinvesting in a sustainable supply of high-quality American-made PPE.”
Contact reporters on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JulietLinderman and https://twitter.com/mendozamartha
Contact the AP global investigative team at [email protected]