As the United States now leads the world in the total number of COVID-19 diagnoses, masks and other protective medical equipment for health care professionals are in short supply.
The shortage is so severe that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that hospital staffers can wear bandannas in the absence of medically appropriate masks.
However, there may be a better alternative. One small hospital on the southeast side of San Antonio may have a possible solution to Texas’ mask shortage: reusable respirators.
More specifically, the elastomeric respirators used by the Texas Center for Infectious Disease are known as the North 7700 respirators. Outfitted with a durable plastic that covers the face and nose as well as two cartridge filters, the North 7700 respirator is found to be more effective than N95 masks. The North 7700 filters out 99.7 percent of particles and is completely reusable.
In fact, at the TCID, where they commonly treat such diseases as tuberculosis, there has long been a strict policy against wearing N95 masks at the hospital unless the wearer is a visitor.
“In industry, N95s are affectionately known and dismissed as dust masks. But they’ve reached holy grail status in health care for whatever reason — maybe because they are cheaper and more disposable,” Jessica Gutierrez-Rodriguez, TCID’s hospital administrator, said in an interview with health and science reporter Roxanne Khamsi.
With the recent mask shortages, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are advocating for hospitals to consider embracing reusable respirators.
And in a study appearing in the medical journal JAMA, a team of researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Centers at the CDC have found that reusable elastomeric respirators may be an acceptable alternative to disposable N95 respirators currently in high demand.
Elastomeric respirators are distributed with the intention of protection against hazardous vapors, gases and particulate matter, and they are usually used in factories, not hospitals, which is what makes TCID’s policy unique.
One reason elastomeric respirators may not be commonly circulated in hospitals is that they require being cleaned between uses. Having to disinfect a mask between seeing each patient could slow down health workers, unlike using disposable N95 masks.
Whether there are enough of the respirators available for the thousands of health workers who will need them is not yet clear, however, a reusable alternative in the middle of a mask shortage is most certainly valuable to the many health care workers on the frontlines.