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April 23, 2021

N95 masks no longer need to be rationed or reused, FDA says

Manufacturers say they have a surplus of the personal protective equipment

N95 masks, once considered scarce during the COVID-19 pandemic, no longer need to be reused due to the end of the shortage.

Hospitals previously were instructed to ration, clean and reuse N95 masks at the onset of the pandemic. Civilians were urged to wear surgical masks or other face coverings and reserve available N95 masks for medical workers.  

Now, N95 respirators which provide better protection against the coronavirus than other face coverings are plentiful, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. 

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending health care personnel and facilities transition away from crisis capacity conservation strategies," the agency said in a letter sent to health care facilities, the Associated Press reported. 

N95 manufacturers say they have surpluses to sell. Some hospitals also have stockpiles to last them up to one year, the AP reported. 

Amid shortages, hospital workers typically were issued about one mask per week. Previously, a new mask was used for each patient. 

Instructions to sanitize and reuse masks irked medical providers. Last spring, National Nurses United, the largest professional organization of U.S. nurses, said the policy constituted a "disregard for nurses' lives.

As recently as October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was issuing guidances aimed at helping health care providers clean and reuse their masks.

"With extended use, N95 FFRs are worn for a prolonged period, for multiple patient contacts, before being removed and discarded (unlike conventional strategies in which an N95 FFR is used for one patient contact then discarded). This will slow the N95 FFR burn rate to help alleviate supply concerns," the CDC wrote in guidance issued last fall. 

Despite the FDA's new recommendations, hospitals still can opt to have employees reuse masks — for now. In the coming months, the FDA is expected to issue guidance ordering hospitals to revert to single-use. 

"The ability to decontaminate was purely a last resort, an extreme measure," Suzanne Schwartz, director of the FDA’s office of strategic partnerships and technology innovation, told the AP. "From the FDA’s perspective, there is a need for us to move back towards contingency and conventional strategies, which is, you use the respirator for the interaction, and then you dispose of it and get a new one."

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