The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is calling for health care facilities to transition away from instructing staff to reuse N95 masks since the U.S. and its hospitals have built up a stockpile since the shortages last year.
The FDA issued a letter to health care personnel and facilities earlier this month recommending that workers stop cleaning and reusing N95 masks and other respirators to limit any contamination.
Under the Trump administration, the government previously authorized N95 masks, which are intended for one use per patient, to be reused as part of the country’s “crisis capacity conservation strategies” when the U.S. had limited personal protective equipment early in the pandemic.
In its letter, the FDA said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) supply of new respirators has grown to an “adequate supply” and is “currently available to facilitate this transition.”
“The FDA and CDC believe there is adequate supply of respirators to transition away from use of decontamination and bioburden reduction systems,” the letter said.
But the FDA said it would not officially order the end of emergency authorizations for N95 masks and other respirators to be reused in case facilities don’t have enough supplies. It said that “such reuse of respirators should be limited to when no other respirators are available.”
Throughout the pandemic, thousands of health care workers died after taking care of sick patients, with several lacking sufficient equipment to protect themselves from infection.
Suzanne Schwartz, the director of the FDA’s office of strategic partnerships and technology innovation, told The Associated Press that the agency will update its recommendation to mandate that health care workers only use respirators one time.
“The ability to decontaminate was purely a last resort, an extreme measure,” Schwartz said. “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.”
FDA spokesperson Audra Harrison said in a statement on Monday that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has approved more than 850 N95s made domestically since the pandemic began.
"As a result, the FDA is able to recommend that health care organizations actively move to operating under more conventional conservation strategies and that disposable respirators not be re-used, even with decontamination or bioburden reduction efforts," Harrison said.
"We will continue to keep the public, including health care personnel, informed as additional actions are announced," she said.
National Nurses United, which represents 170,000 nurses, called the FDA's update "encouraging" and a "step in the right direction" in a statement.
The union said it studied the "available evidence on decontamination methods and determined that no method has been shown to be both safe and effective."
"Nurses held numerous protests against using unproven, dangerous decontamination system to reprocess N95s and forced their employers to stop using them," the union said. "The next step is for the FDA to revoke its emergency use authorizations and end all use of decontamination systems for N95s."
—Updated Monday at 5:06 p.m.