Masks for health care workers in short supply

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The Centers for Disease Control now says health care workers should wear a specific kind of facemask designed for infectious disease control to protect them from the H1N1 virus and state officials are scrambling to respond to federal guidelines as Minnesota's supply of the masks is running out.

The CDC wants health care workers to wear what's called an N95 mask.

The N95s look a lot like surgical masks, but they're much more protective. That's because they seal to a person's face and prevent health care workers from breathing in H1N1 flu particles.

Usually, hospital staffs use N95s when they're treating people with things like tuberculosis, but Minnesota hospitals say they're running out of the masks.

"If we take a look at our entire system here and if we start to apply these N95s out to where the patients are going to be coming through the front door, then I think it's going to be just a few days and we're going to be out of stock," said Rick Huston, director of operations at Regions Hospital in St Paul.

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This hasn't been an issue until now because hospital administrators thought they had another option.

"What is very apparent is we're not ready."

For several months, the Minnesota Department of Health said hospitals could use standard surgical masks instead of N95 masks. The department's spokesman, Doug Schultz, says the state now follows CDC recommendations.

"We are working on some additional recommendations for implementation that we will be asking hospitals to consider," Schultz said.

The Minnesota Nurses Association believes the state failed to protect health care workers.

"What is very apparent is we're not ready," said Elizabeth Shogren, the organization's health and safety specialist. "We're not ready for a major pandemic that's a killer. I think the idea that it would be important to spend money and health resources to protect the health workers of the state was not something that was given the attention it deserved."

The nurses association has filed several complaints with the state Cccupational Safety and Health Administration. That agency said it will follow up on complaints and work with hospitals to resolve the issue.

That still leaves the original problem: the dwindling number of N95 masks. The state's stockpile of 1 million masks is already gone. Two million more are coming, but there won't enough for all health care workers who need them.

The CDC lays out several steps hospitals can take if they face shortages, including only giving N95 masks to workers at high risk of contracting H1N1. Hospital staff can also reuse the N95s, but the CDC warns the masks become less effective every time they're taken off.

If nothing else, the CDC says health care workers should wear standard surgical masks when treating H1N1 cases. But the health department's Doug Schultz said even those are running low at some hospitals.

"There's basically a short supply of pretty much everything," he said. "We have noticed some shortages of surgical masks in various locations and we try to fill in with what we have from stockpile."

Those surgical masks are the ones the Minnesota Nurses Association says don't provide enough protection.

There's been ongoing debate nationally about which mask health care workers should use when treating H1N1 patients.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said the debate stems from the fact that there isn't enough information to say who is right.

"Health care workers are really trying to balance their ability to do good patient care and protect themselves," Osterholm said. "When you don't have good data, [it] leads to a difference of opinion and a lot of confusion."

What's important, he said, is that health providers wear a mask -- whatever kind it is.