N95 respirator masks are considered one of the best types of personal protective equipment against liquids and airborne particles that contain a virus, but a shortage of new masks at hospitals nationwide has forced researchers and scientists to come up with alternative options, like recycling equipment.
“To put [it] in context, really the times we used N95s before this, most commonly, were things like tuberculosis and other more rare infectious pathogens,” said Dr. Patrick Kenney, medical director of the supply chain for Yale Medicine and Yale New Haven Health.
“Right now, we’re using manyfold the number of N95s that we normally did. At our prior usage rate, we had a several years’ worth of supply on hand,” he said, “but at the current usage rate and what we’re projecting over the next few weeks, that supply is going to dwindle very rapidly.”
As of Monday afternoon, 517 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were hospitalized, according to the Connecticut Hospital Association. Other hospitalized patients are awaiting test results. With the increased demand in care, health care workers are burning through more supplies of gloves, masks, gowns and other equipment necessary to prevent infection. Kenney said it’s also become a manufacturing issue on a global scale.
“The United States and many other countries import N95 respirators and other medical devices from a variety of different countries, including China. Even when those factories come back online and increase production, there are also distribution problems,” he said. “So, the entire supply chain, from the raw materials to the actual fabrication of the respirators out of factory, to all the different transportation that happens to get the respirators into the hands of a caregiver, every aspect of it has been impacted.”
Typically, a respirator mask, which is different from and more effective than a surgical mask, is used by a health care worker once for each patient encounter and then discarded. But as supply dwindles, Connecticut hospitals have asked health care workers to reuse masks for a limited time. It’s a method recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during crisis and pandemic situations. The federal agency also states that health care systems may use respirators beyond the manufacturer’s shelf life.
The CDC also has guidance about what to do when all supplies of new respirator and surgical masks and other equivalent equipment runs out. As a last resort, “it may be necessary for [health care professionals] to use masks that have never been evaluated … or homemade masks,” which could include improvised mouth and nose covers with bandanas, scarves or other materials. But Kenney and a research team at Yale think they’ve found a better alternative to that situation. It involves identifying respirator masks that can be recycled.