1:05 PM Eastern - Friday, September 4, 2009

Surgical masks not enough to protect healthcare workers against H1N1 influenza virus

swineflupandemic-hhs.jpgSEIU has backed the first and only comprehensive, scientific review that offers guidelines to protect healthcare workers caring for patients with a suspected or confirmed case of the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus (Swine Flu).

The report was released yesterday by the Institute of Medicine, and the most significant finding was this: Regular surgical masks do not provide enough protection against H1N1. Healthcare workers who might be coming into direct contact with patients who are--or could be--infected with the H1N1 influenza virus should be wearing N95 respirator masks, which can block out at least 95% of virus particles.

"It's extremely important that health departments across the country to adopt the recommendations by the IOM panel. The call to use NIOSH approved respirators to protect healthcare workers means protecting the people they care for," stated SEIU Executive VP Mary Kay Henry. SEIU is calling on state and local Health Departments to adopt preventive measures to protect healthcare workers from H1N1.

More conclusions of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel after the break.

IOM Panel Conclusions:

  • Surgical masks are incapable of forming a face seal between the mask and the users face, thus providing a poor barrier from the inhalation of airborne flu particles. This is particularly important with H1N1, as research with the H1N1 virus indicates that it is the smaller respirable sized viral particles that get deep in the lung to cause disease, making this flu virus different than seasonal flu.
  • Many state and local health departments have ignored this advice and recommended inferior surgical masks or no respiratory protections at all, while federal guidance by CDC, OSHA and NIOSH have supported fitted respirators for healthcare workers when caring for patients with suspected or confirmed cases of H1N1 since the start of the H1N1 pandemic.
  • It is critical that healthcare employers purchase and stockpile sufficient quantities of NIOSH-approved respirators so that healthcare workers can be assured of protection as the fall flu season approaches. There have been reports of spot shortages of some models and brands of disposable single use N95 respirators. In the event of shortages of disposable single use N95 respirators, it is important for healthcare employers to also purchase at least one elastomeric respirator for each potentially exposed healthcare worker. These types of respirators can be disinfected and reused.

"Healthcare workers want to do their job in caring for their patients," said Henry. "But, they need to know that they are being protected." Get the IOM report on H1N1 recommendations here. For more information on H1N1 swine flu, visit the Flu.gov.

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