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Demand for N95 masks alters protocols at York County hospitals

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Frontline health worker Dr. Hardik Patel wears some of his personal protective equipment outside WellSpan York Hospital Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. He provides care to about 23 COVID-19 patients each day. Bill Kalina photo

York County's hospitals are continuing to provide what are deemed; "ample" supplies of N95 masks to their employees — which in many cases means one per shift. 

Demand for N95 masks, the preferred personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, skyrocketed after the pandemic began in March.

 A year later, many hospitals, including those in the York-based WellSpan system, are continuing to follow revised U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that conserve supplies while the supply stream continues to fluctuate.

"Overall N95 mask supply during the recent surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations did drop," said Ryan Coyle, a spokesperson for WellSpan, "but not to the point of any shortages impacting safety or care."

More:Hospitals continue to ration N95 masks while stockpiles grow

More:Health official: COVID-19 cases, deaths on decline in York County

More:Some York County school districts reset COVID-19 data after snow closures

Coyle said that while WellSpan receives regular shipments of N95 masks, the supply chain has not  stabilized.

"Our supply of masks on hand is less than levels prior to the pandemic, and therefore we will continue to follow the CDC recommendations," he added. "The shipments do not always provide the same quantities, so there are inconsistencies in the supply chain."

Officials at UPMC, however, said their health system has a "strong supply chain" with few issues in receiving N95 masks.

"We have a strong supply chain system to ensure we are receiving personal protective equipment and everything needed for patient care," said UPMC spokesperson Kelly McCall via email. UPMC includes UPMC Memorial Hospital and UPMC Hanover Hospital in York County in its network.

With the support of eight area hospitals, including York Hospital, as well as 200 additional WellSpan care locations, medical staff  routinely share supplies where needed among facilities, Coyle said. 

As per current CDC guidelines, WellSpan employees receive one N95 mask per shift unless it becomes soiled or damaged. 

Before the pandemic, medical providers largely followed manufacturer and government guidelines that called for N95s to be discarded after each use. 

As N95s ran short, the CDC modified the guidelines to allow for "extended use" and "reuse," only if supplies are depleted, The Associated Press has reported.

And, according to the CDC, the maximum length of continuous use in a medical setting is typically ruled by hygienic concerns — for example if the respirator becomes contaminated.

"We aren't rationing masks," Coyle said via email. "Of course, when a mask becomes soiled or damaged it should be replaced immediately — even if in the middle of a team member’s shift."

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for N95 masks was 1.7 billion per year, with 80% going to industrial uses and 20% into medical.

In 2021, demand for N95 masks for medical use is estimated at 5.7 billion, according to The Associated Press. 

Both Coyle and McCall said their health systems receive new N95 masks on a regular basis.

"UPMC facilities and staff are well-equipped to properly care for patients," McCall said.

McCall did not answer questions about how often employees change masks per shift.

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.