FRIDAY, March 27, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- As the coronavirus pandemic stresses the U.S. health care system, personal protective equipment -- including high-tech masks -- are in desperately short supply.
But a new study suggests an innovative solution: Reusable respirators typically used by construction or factory workers may be a viable alternative to disposable N95 respirators used by health care personnel.
The reusable masks are called elastomeric half-mask respirators (EHMRs), and they "provide the same level of respiratory protection [from infection] as N95 respirators," explained a team led by Lisa Pompeii, professor of pediatrics-epidemiology at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston.
One potential roadblock to nurses and other health care workers using EHMRs is the time needed to assure a safe fit, however.
"Training and fit testing health care providers on respirators can be time-consuming, and in an epidemic we want to train and fit test a large number of workers quickly," Pompeii said in a Baylor news release.
So, her team compared the time it took to fit test and train health care workers to use either standard disposable respirators or the reusable EHMRs.
The result: Health care staff quickly got the hang of the reusable respirators, and it didn't take more time to fit test them than to do so with a disposable respirator, Pompeii's group reported. Their findings were published online March 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Our study shows that training and fit testing workers on these reusable respirators does not represent a barrier for possible use by hospitals," Pompeii said.
Another huge advantage of using reusable respirators "is that there is no need to stockpile them," as must happen with disposable masks, she noted.
Further investigation is needed to determine how best to disinfect elastomeric respirators in health care facilities, something that's also being studied by Pompeii and her colleagues, and others.
The repurposing of EHMRs isn't the only way that health care workers are partnering with the building trades to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a joint statement issued Monday, the nurses' union National Nurses United and North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) announced that protective equipment used in construction would be donated to health care workers.
"We commend the thousands of nurses, first-responders, and health care workers who are putting their lives on the line every day during this pandemic," NABTU president Sean McGarvey said in the statement.
"Given the shortage of health supplies, we are asking our contractors and our own training centers to donate N95 respirators and other protective equipment like face shields and goggles as quickly as possible in their own communities," he said. "Our men and women will continue doing all we can to support those in need during this critical time."