ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Face coverings became a concern early in the COVID-19 outbreak because of a shortage of medical personal protective equipment, or PPE – in New Mexico and nationwide. Health officials urged the public not to obtain surgical masks and N95s as a way to ensure supplies for those on the medical front lines. And at times, nurses in New Mexico would have to reuse scarce N95 masks for up to five days.
“The administration (of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham) has leapt tall buildings to get PPE,” said Deborah Walker, executive director of the New Mexico Nurses Association. And hospitals, including University of New Mexico Hospital and Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, have since promoted disinfecting N95s for reuse.
“But that is still a crisis standard,” Walker said. “And we don’t have enough research to know how many times they can be disinfected.”
The possible health hazards to nurses and others who wear the disinfected masks are also unknown.
“This can’t become the new norm,” she added.
“As we continue, that is not the standard our nurses deserve,” said Walker, who said she still receives “anecdotal reports” from among the 20,000 licensed New Mexico nurses about lack of PPE.
Nowadays, N95 masks are typically used when treating COVID-19 patients.
But Walker said she knows of nurses treating non-COVID-19 patients who are supposed to wear surgical masks for an entire shift, which can last 12 hours. In pre-COVID-19 days, “they changed (masks) every time they needed to,” she said.
Nurses are trained in infection control, Walker said. But “it’s no longer the nurses’ judgment as to when they are to change a surgical mask.”
She said her association wants to see a “supply chain that goes back to pre-COVID standards.”
Meanwhile, Sheena Ferguson, a registered nurse with the Medical Reserve Corps, helps screen Albuquerque’s homeless for the virus, and she volunteers at Roadrunner Food Bank.
She also wears a cloth mask over her surgical mask. That way, she can wash the cloth mask along with her scrubs every night and keep the surgical mask for future use.
Never before would she have thought of reusing a surgical mask, Ferguson told the Journal last week. “It’s just new territory all the way around.”