State Relaxes Mask Guidance Amid Virus-Related Shortage

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California worker safety regulators have issued new guidelines for mask use that health care workers say could put them at greater risk of infection amid the COVID-19 epidemic.

According to the guidance, Cal OSHA now says surgical masks, the ones doctors typically wear, can be used by health care workers in certain conditions if hospitals and clinics can show they are unable to find N95 masks, which filter out 95 percent of disease causing particles. Under the new guidance, surgical masks should only be used for “lower hazard tasks involving patient contact.”

The new guidance comes after San Francisco public health director Grant Colfax announced last week the city was issuing surgical masks to all workers at Laguna Honda hospital, where there is an ongoing outbreak, as well as San Francisco General and other public health clinics.

“We are doing our best to keep our workers as safe as possible in the high risk areas while also constrained by a limited supply of masks,” Colfax said.

But critics of the change say surgical masks are only designed to stop spreading the germs of the person wearing it. They don’t protect those wearing them from getting someone else’s germs.

Garrett Brown, a retired Cal OSHA  official, worries that issuing surgical masks will likely give hospital workers a false sense of security. “Surgical masks are useful for protecting the world against you -- they don’t provide any protection for you against the world,” he said.

San Francisco General psychiatric nurse and union organizer Jennifer Esteen also worries about Cal OSHA softening its stance during the crisis.

“It’s really frightening because the things that normally keep us safe -- which is standards and equipment… are non-existent,” she said, adding that she is distributing a petition urging Cal OSHA to rethink its new policy about surgical mask use.

The new guidelines still require that health care providers demonstrate they have made  “reasonable efforts” to find N95 masks and that their remaining supply would be depleted without substituting the less protective surgical masks.

In a statement, the agency said that because of the shortage, it is “recommending prioritization of respirators for higher-risk procedures in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which describe the best possible options for minimizing exposure risks now and into the future, as we grapple with the respirator shortage.”

“This prioritization will only be in place as long as there are shortages,” the agency said, emphasizing all other virus related protections for health care workers remain in place.

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