Topic: Hospitals still ration medical N95 masks as stockpiles swell
Mike Bowen’s warehouse outside Fort Worth, Texas, was piled high with cases of medical-grade N95 face masks. His company, Prestige Ameritech, can churn out 1 million masks every four days, but he doesn’t have orders for nearly that many. So he recently got approval from the government to export them.
“I’m drowning in these respirators,” Bowen said.
On the same day 1000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north, Mary Turner, a COVID-19 intensive care nurse at a hospital outside Minneapolis, strapped on the one disposable N-95 respirator allotted for her entire shift.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Turner would have thrown out her mask and grabbed a new one after each patient to prevent the spread of disease. But on this day, she’ll wear that mask from one infected person to the next because N95s — they filter out 95% of infectious particles — have supposedly been in short supply since last March.
Turner’s employer, North Memorial Health, said in a statement that supplies have stabilized, but the company is still limiting use because “we must remain mindful of that supply” to ensure everyone’s safety.
One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many millions of N95 masks are pouring out of American factories and heading into storage. Yet doctors and nurses like Turner say there still aren’t nearly enough in the “ICU rooms with high-flow oxygen and COVID germs all over.”
While supply and demand issues surrounding N95 respirators are well-documented, until now the reasons for this discrepancy have been unclear.
The logistical breakdown is rooted in federal failures over the past year to coordinate supply chains and provide hospitals with clear rules about how to manage their medical equipment.
Internal government emails obtained by The Associated Press show there were deliberate decisions to withhold vital information about new mask manufacturers and availability. Exclusive trade data and interviews with manufacturers, hospital procurement officials and frontline medical workers reveal a communication breakdown — not an actual shortage — that is depriving doctors, nurses, paramedics and other people risking exposure to COVID-19 of first-rate protection.
Before the pandemic, medical providers followed manufacturer and government guidelines that called for N95s to be discarded after each use, largely to protect doctors and nurses from catching infectious diseases themselves. As N95s ran short, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention modified those guidelines to allow for extended use and reuse only if supplies are “depleted,” a term left undefined.
Topic Discussed: Hospitals still ration medical N95 masks as stockpiles swell