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N.W.T. health officials considering using recycled surgical masks

Health officials say there are enough protective face masks for health-care workers in the Northwest Territories to last “several weeks,” but they are bracing for the increased demand that would come with an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the territory.

Known as N95 masks, the white paper masks are a key piece of protective equipment for doctors and nurses working on patients with the novel coronavirus. They filter out the microdroplets that transmit the highly contagious virus when someone with it sneezes, coughs or even speaks.

There is a North America-wide shortage of N95 masks.

On Saturday, the N.W.T.’s chief public health officer authorized the use of a framework adopted in British Columbia last month to decide who gets masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) when it is in short supply during a pandemic.

Dr. Kami Kandola also authorized the Department of Health to go to the fourth of six stages of prioritization in the framework. Jurisdictions move to the fourth stage when they are within days of running out of one or more items of PPE.

“We are not actually implementing at Stage 4,” Dr. Sarah Cook, the medical director for the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.

“Dr. Kandola authorized that we could implement Stage 4. That doesn’t mean we are or have to implement at Stage 4.”

Kandola said she authorized the use of the B.C. framework and authorized the health authority to enter Stage 4 in order to be ready to act if need be.

“It’s always been a proactive approach,” she said. “I don’t wait for a situation to deteriorate.”

Limiting use of masks

Cook said there are enough masks to last “several weeks” at the current rate of usage, also known as the “burn rate.”

sarah cook
Dr. Sarah Cook said officials are trying to find new sources of N95 masks in case COVID-19 cases go up in the territory. (Caitlin Cleveland photo/GNWT)

She said health authorities are now in the process of implementing continuous masking, which saves doctors and nurses from having to put on a new mask each time they see a new patient.

But not all people treating patients are using N95 masks.

“Because we don’t have community transmission yet and we are trying to preserve PPE for when we do need it, we’re not at a stage of providing PPE for everyone who is providing care within two metres,” said Cook.

N95 masks are being used by doctors and nurses performing procedures known to generate microdroplets, such as inserting a tube in a patient’s mouth and throat during surgery, or using an inflating bag and a mask to help someone who is having trouble breathing.

Meanwhile, surgical masks — a looser-fitting mask that helps block large-particle droplets or splashes — are being used when treating patients with risk of COVID-19, and for other normal medical procedures such as surgeries, explained the health authority in a subsequent email Thursday.

“If we have community spread and we need to go to continuous masking for anyone within two metres of a patient, that’s going to change the burn rate,” said Cook.

The health authority added in an email Thursday that continuous masking is currently being implemented in two settings — with long-term care and cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Reprocessed masks in wide use in U.S.: medial director

Cook said officials are trying to find new sources of the masks in anticipation of an increase in the number of cases.

Doctors and nurses have not yet been asked to reuse their single-use masks. Cook said they may be asked to use recycled masks.

“We’re actively looking at that as an option, but it’s not in place at this time,” she said.

Asked if recycled masks are as effective as new N95 masks in screening out microdroplets, Cook and Kandola would say only that “they’re safe” to use.

“That’s a very technical question,” said Cook. “The information I’ve been given is it is safe to use if it’s gone through the appropriate reprocessing process.”

Kandola said reprocessed masks are in wide use in areas of the U.S. where supplies of the masks are low.

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