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Coronavirus: Used masks in Interior Health to be sterilized, stored as emergency backup

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The Interior Health Authority confirmed on Monday it will collect used disposable N95 masks to be sterilized and stored as a backup, as the country’s health-care system grapples with dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Interior Health’s largest acute care sites will aim to preserve critical supply levels, said spokesperson Susan Duncan, and used masks will be cleaned and stored as part of a provincial backup-supply initiative.

Surgical masks and N95 respirators are the most effective barriers against large respiratory droplets expelled by talking, coughing or sneezing — one of the main ways COVID-19 is transmitted.

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The move highlights that a critical shortage is looming, according to the BC Nurses’ Union.

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“We know that we have exhausted the regular inventory. We are now in the pandemic supply inventory,” said president Christine Sorensen on Monday.

“This only reiterates what nurses have already been seeing in the work site.”

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According to Sorensen, an internal memo was circulated in Interior Health on March 27, saying used face masks will be collected at Kelowna General, Royal Inland, Penticton Regional, Vernon Jubilee, East Kootenay Regional and Kootenay Boundary Regional hospitals.

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The memo indicates the masks will be sterilized at Vancouver General Hospital with ethylene oxide, a sanitizing agent, and then stored, she added.

Sanitizing and reusing face masks has not been put into practice before, Sorensen said, and she questions the science behind it.

“Once that has been established and we have evidence of that, then we can certainly get behind this.”

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Hospitals are also starting to limit the amount of personal protective equipment handed out to nurses and doctors per shift, she added.

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Duncan would not respond directly to Sorensen’s claims, but said officials are working to ensure that enough supplies are distributed across the region and made available when needed, and that health authorities regularly redistribute protective gear to different warehouses as required.

“While it may feel like certain supplies are low at one site, or in one area, stock is available in the province for redistribution.”

A team within the Provincial Health Services Authority has been created to manage the outpouring of support offered by local and global suppliers and manufacturers of protective equipment.

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“Through this work, we know that millions of pieces … have been secured for our supply chain, and they continue to follow up on new sources daily,” Duncan said.

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Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is taking “significant steps” to ensure health-care workers are protected on the front lines.

“Our approach is focused around preparation, not desperation,” Dix said at a daily news briefing on Monday.

“In the last few weeks, we have received several orders from various suppliers, including N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, eye protection, and other (protective items) that are critical to keeping our healthcare workers safe.”

Global demand has resulted in strain on previous suppliers’ ability to provide bulk shipments, he added, but on Monday, B.C. received a shipment of 1 million surgical masks.

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