Can N95 masks be reused? SHA examining the possibility

CEO of the SHA Scott Livingstone said the authority shares the concerns of SUN and other unions about PPE supplies in the future, but said there is a lot of work underway to secure supplies for those working on the front line of Saskatchewan’s medical system.

SHA says there is an adequate supply of protective equipment

Tracy Zambory, president of Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, said SUN is in favour of researching whether or not the N95 masks can be reused, but said the research needs to happen in a controlled lab environment. (Craig Edwards/CBC)
  • Saskatchewan reported 14 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing its total to 220.
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  • An assisted-living care centre worker in Regina has tested positive for the virus.
  • A long list of professionals has petitioned the province to release inmates in light of the pandemic. 
  • Saskatchewan's privacy commissioner says "more information is better'" during a health crisis like COVID-19. 

The head of the province's nurses union says the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is examining the possibility of reusing N95 masks to protect against COVID-19.

Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN), said that as of Thursday front-line workers were being told by SHA managers about a trial to see if the highly-sought masks could be reused. 

Zambory said overall research on reuse of the masks is "limited" and that in examples SUN found the masks were only being reused in "complete crisis mode," noting she doesn't think Saskatchewan is there just yet. 

"We're all for looking at new and creative ways, but it isn't something we would envision happening on the floor with our members," she said. "It's something that we think needs to happen in a controlled setting, in a lab setting, as opposed to immediately going into the clinical environment."

Zambory said if the trial were to take place directly in the hospitals, that would raise a red flag for her union, as it may see nurses using untested masks in high-risk settings.

"Research takes a long time before it gets to clinical trials," she said. Adding: "Let's not rush it. We have to make sure whatever we're thinking about here is foolproof." 

SUN says rationing already happening

Zambory didn't have specifics about how the trial will be rolled out, but said issues around available personal protective equipment (PPE) are already starting. 

She said PPE is already being rationed, despite the SHA's chief medical officer Susan Shaw having made a claim to the contrary. 

"Our members have told us quite clearly in the busy emergency rooms here in the province: Two masks per shift," Zambory said. 

N95 masks are one of the most requested items by health-care workers. The SHA says it is currently not experiencing a shortage of PPE. (Michael Wilson/Radio-Canada)

A statement from the SHA said that while a two-mask protocol was put in place at a Regina emergency room, the decision was made locally and was not a provincial directive. The statement said each of the nurses were given two masks daily, whether they are treating patients with COVID-19 symptoms or not, to prevent exposure.

"We encourage the best use of PPE," the statement said. "This means using the right equipment for the right procedure in the right place. There are guidelines that outline what type of PPE is appropriate for procedures and testing and all staff would be provided with the appropriate provisions and supply to protect themselves and their patients. This applies to all SHA locations including testing centres and ICUs."

SHA making contingency plans, tracking down PPE

The statement didn't touch on the potential plan to reuse masks, but noted SHA has developed "contingency plans regarding its supplies for the months ahead." 

SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said there are adequate PPE supplies for now.

"We are not experiencing a current shortage of PPE. We have the PPE we need at this phase of our work around pandemic planning," he said. 

SHA CEO Scott Livingstone says it the association shares concerns about the availability of PPE long term, but that it is not currently experiencing a shortage. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Livingstone said the SHA shares the concerns of SUN and other unions about PPE in the future, but that there is a lot of work underway to secure supplies for front-line workers.

"We're not burning through PPE like you see in other jurisdictions that are experiencing different peaks and demands, in-particular in Quebec and Ontario, but we are managing those supplies provincially and we are monitoring our orders as well as our received orders." 

Global demand

Premier Scott Moe said provincial leaders across the country and the federal government are working to address the issue around PPE, saying they're chasing down every possible lead. 

"Every jurisdiction in the world is looking for the very same thing," he said. 

"They're looking for N95 masks, they're looking for other surgical masks, they're looking for gloves, they're looking for gowns and so are we here in this province. But we are working very hard on this at the leadership levels — all of the leadership levels."

Premier Moe said on Friday that provincial and federal leaders are following every lead on additional supplies of PPE. (CBC News)

Zambory said nurses have been kept in the dark about PPE planning overall, saying the lack of transparency from the SHA has been "very frustrating."

"What is the point of all the secrecy?" she asked. "It isn't that we want to go in and make a whole bunch of changes, it's that we want to have an idea of what our members' landscape is going to look like." 

In its statement, the SHA said its human resources leadership meets with union leaders daily and is working to provide them with as much information as they can as fast as they can. 

"We recognize this is not always as timely as would be ideal but we commit to continuing to partner with them through these difficult times. We will continue to seek input from unions into this planning and we appreciate the input our unions provide," the statement said.

As of Friday afternoon, Saskatchewan had reported a total of 220 COVID-19 cases, with three cases in hospital, 48 people recovered and three people dead.