Coronavirus Coronavirus in the US Healthcare & Coronavirus Hospitals & COVID-19

N95 respirator supply strategy for healthcare workers during COVID-19

N95 Respirator Supply

N95 respirator supply strategy for healthcare workers during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 crisis, the problems with the N95 respirator supply became immediately apparent. Many frontline medical workers were struggling to find the masks they needed to keep themselves and other patients safe while working with COVID-19 patients.

While the shortage of personal protective equipment during this pandemic is a major issue that healthcare systems and the countries need to address, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some suggestions for healthcare workers who are dealing with a N95 respirator supply shortage.


Capacity plans during an expected shortage

When an N95 face mask shortage is expected, healthcare workers and hospital administration can take steps to help ensure the current mask supply lasts for a longer time.

Medically stable patients who can’t go home because of social reasons, for example, can be moved to alternative non-hospital housing. The annual fit testing required by OSHA can be suspended as this test will use up masks.

Healthcare workers may have to use their N95 respirators for a longer period of time than designated by the manufacturer. They can also extend the use of N95 masks by wearing the same one for close-contact encounters with multiple patients.

However, in this case, the masks must be removed following the CDC’s guidance on extended N95 use. This includes hand washing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer before and after touching the mask for any reason and only using clean, sterile gloves to touch the mask if possible.


Strategies for an N95 respirator supply shortage

During a major N95 respirator supply shortage, the CDC suggests healthcare workers use many of the steps from the expected shortage plan, including using the respirators beyond the shelf life indicated by the manufacturer.

In addition, the CDC recommends healthcare workers use similar respirators that are approved in other countries and regular face masks, if necessary, to avoid interacting with patients without any face covering.

When workers are using the same respirator repeatedly, they are advised to remove and decontaminate it after each patient encounter using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP) or moist heat methods.

Before a mask is decontaminated, workers should inspect it for tears, breaks or other damage that could render the mask useless.


N95 respirator supply shortage

In serious situations when the respirators are completely unavailable, healthcare workers who are at a higher risk of experiencing a severe COVID-19 illness should not have contact with any suspected or known COVID-19 patients. This includes pregnant workers, people with chronic medical conditions and older healthcare workers.

The CDC also advises identifying and designating healthcare workers who have already had COVID-19 as the people who should care for suspected or known COVID-19 patients as they may have some immunity to the disease.

The use of a patient isolation room can also help ensure safe care during an N95 shortage, as well as the use of ventilated headboards with COVID-19 patients. These headboards can decrease the risk of healthcare worker exposure to potentially infected aerosol from patients.


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