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Lack of face masks, need to reuse, a frightening reality for hospital workers

by Breanna Edelstein, Eagle Tribune

Behind the incessant conversations about a lack of personal protective equipment amid the novel coronavirus outbreak are the nurses and doctors — mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters — left wearing weeks-old gear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated strategies for optimizing supplies, particularly of face masks, as surges of the respiratory illness flood the country. But the effort has proven to be far from reassuring for front line workers. According to its website, the CDC in March began advising cancellations of all elective and non-urgent procedures to preserve masks, as well as using face masks beyond the manufacturer-designated shelf life. Beyond that, federal officials say health care professionals should be re-using face masks for multiple encounters with different patients, but removing them after each encounter. They are to be stored in a paper bag or "breathable container" between shifts. In the most dire situations, when there are no face masks at all available, at-risk workers — those who are pregnant, older or have underlying health conditions — should be sidelined from direct patient care. Homemade face masks may be used at that point as well, according to the CDC. "However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect health care professionals is unknown," the federal guidelines state. "Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face."

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