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Local hospital staff reusing masks to conserve supply

Brett Dahlberg
Administrators at Strong Memorial Hospital discuss their hospital's policies on personal protective equipment at a virtual news conference on Friday.

Administrators at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health have instructed staff to reuse masks in an effort to preserve their supply.

At both hospital systems, administrators said they were following state and federal guidance on infection control measures.

Neither hospital system said a shortage of personal protective equipment was imminent. Still, the supplies are finite, said Dr. Michael Apostolakos, the chief medical officer at Strong Memorial Hospital.

Strong had two to six weeks’ worth of protective gear on hand, he said.

Both URMC and Rochester Regional began a “universal masking policy” last month in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from asymptomatic carriers inside their hospitals.

Aerosols that could carry the novel coronavirus are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and also during certain medical procedures like being fitted with a ventilator tube.

That universal masking policy could strain the supply of protective equipment, which is, in part, why the hospital systems are encouraging staff to reuse masks that are not soiled or damaged.

“We haven’t gone so far as to say that everyone who’s uncomfortable can wear an N95 mask anytime they wish,” Apostolakos said. “I don’t believe that we or any other institution has enough N95 masks to do that.”

Staff have begun using plastic face shields to protect the masks during close contact with patients. The face shields are cleaned between every patient, Apostolakos said, but the masks under them can be reused.

In some cases, the hospitals said they allow staff to use certain highly protective masks even when government guidance doesn’t call for it.

“We’ve gone above and beyond by allowing those who are in rooms where aerosolization occurs even in non-COVID patients to wear N95 masks,” Apostolakos said.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.