By Jonathan Springston, Editor, Relias Media

Long-lasting masks popular in the construction industry have shown to be durable in and cost-effective for healthcare settings, according to the results of a new study. Researchers believe these masks could serve as reliable alternatives to N95 respirators, which have been in short supply consistently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff affiliated with Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network (AHN) tested elastomeric masks, tight-fitting, industrial, rubber-based devices that resemble gas masks, as a possible alternative to N95 respirators. The N95 is a vital piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) that is essential in treating an aerosolized biological weapon like COVID-19, but U.S. supplies have been woefully inadequate since the pandemic began.

For one month, investigators distributed half-facepiece elastomeric masks to so-called “super-user” staff (i.e., healthcare workers who interact with COVID-19 patients the most) across the nine-hospital AHN. At first, staff shared the masks with colleagues working other shifts (masks were disinfected between shifts).

As AHN secured extra elastomeric masks, more staffers could keep their own devices and disinfect between use. Eventually, almost 2,000 AHN healthcare workers were tested to see if they could use an elastomeric mask, with 94% able to properly wear one. Gradually, AHN provided more staff with the new masks. At the end of the one-month trial, the authors reported no staff member who could wear an elastomeric mask and had been doing so wanted to return to using N95 respirators. Overall, investigators calculated the elastomeric devices cost 10 times less per month than constantly buying, reusing, and disinfecting N95s.

“Establishing an elastomeric mask program is feasible and less expensive than programs focused on reusing and disinfecting disposable N95 masks. A well thought out elastomeric distribution and disinfection program does not pose greater operational challenges than an N95 reuse and resterilization program,” the authors wrote. “In addition, elastomeric masks can be stored for future surges and should be considered an essential part of all healthcare facilities’ supply of personal protective equipment. Implementation of the program has eliminated our dependence on disposable N95s to maintain normal operations during the global pandemic.”

Indeed, disinfecting and reusing N95s has become an increasingly popular practice at facilities across the United States. In the upcoming July issue of Same-Day Surgery, read about how a team devised a reproducible and scalable process for disinfecting N95 respirators.

Meanwhile, members of the White House Supply Chain Task Force told a congressional committee this week that there should be enough N95 respirators to meet COVID-19 pandemic demand from July through October. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has released state-by-state data on PPE.

Lawmakers have been asking for this information for some time. In fact, three senators requested this week an investigation into Project Airbridge, the Trump administration’s pandemic supply initiative. The trio of lawmakers alleged the effort “has been marked by delays, incompetence, confusion, and secrecy.”

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