Hospitals Still Ration Medical N95 Masks as Stockpiles Swell

WASHINGTON (AP) -
A health-care worker protest of a shortage on protective masks. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.  finds itself with many millions of N95 masks pouring out of American factories and heading into storage. Yet there still aren’t nearly enough in ICU rooms and hospitals. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

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 1,000 miles 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 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 percent 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.

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.

Hospitals have responded in a variety of ways, the AP has found. Some are back to pre-COVID-19, one-use-per-patient N95 protocols, but most are doling out one mask a day or fewer to each employee. Many hospital procurement officers say they are relying on CDC guidelines for depleted supplies, even if their own stockpiles are robust.

The AP spoke with a dozen procurement officers who buy supplies for more than 300 hospitals across the U.S. All said they have enough N95s now, between two and 12 months worth, sitting in storage.

Even so, all but two of those hospital systems are limiting their doctors, nurses and other workers to one mask per day, or even one per week. Some say they are waiting for the supply to grow even more, while others say they never plan to go back to pre-COVID-19 usage.

Dr. Robert Hancock, an emergency room doctor and president of the Texas College of Emergency Room Physicians, said hospitals are taking risks by continuing to ration N95s, even when they have enough. He said some doctors tell him they get one N95 mask every five to seven days.

“All the N95s currently out there were designed to be worn once. They were never designed to be reused,” Hancock said. “Hospitals are going to have to come up with some hard data to back up that a mask built for single use is OK to use repeatedly if there are other masks available. It was one thing when we had no choice. But you can’t just say something works because it favors you financially.”