California health officials will release a portion of its emergency supply of face masks, including some expired masks, to help protect health workers and patients from COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have given California approval to use 21 million masks from an emergency reserve.
These are N95 filtering facepiece respirators, which remove particles from any air being inhaled. According to the CDC, they are capable of filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses.
Masks can help limit the spread of disease for people who are already sick, but state and federal health officials are not recommending that healthy people wear them at this time.
The new stock being released includes some masks that are past their manufacturer use-by date, but still work because they were stored in climate-controlled conditions, according to a release from the California Department of Public Health.
“Protecting the health and safety of the doctors, nurses, and other health care and dental care providers is a critical component of ensuring our public health at any time, and particularly now,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, Director of the California Department of Public Health and State Health Officer, in the release. “Releasing this supply of masks will help keep our health care professionals safe on the job.”
The announcement comes almost one week after the first case of community spread arrived at NorthBay VacaValley hospital in Vacaville. The female patient was then transferred to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She had not recently traveled to China or knowingly interacted with travelers who had been there.
At least three health care workers from the Vacaville facility have tested positive for COVID-19. Those cases are in Placer, Solano and Alameda counties.
National Nurses United, an umbrella organization that includes the California Nurses Association, said last week that hospitals are not prepared to protect workers from the illness. They said 36 nurses and 88 other health care workers from the UC Davis facility were sent home for self-quarantine after the patient was admitted. UC Davis Medical Center says these numbers are not accurate.
Preliminary results from a survey the union conducted found 73% of 1,000 nurses report having access to N95 respirators on their units, and only 27 percent feel their employers have sufficient protective equipment on hand to protect staff in the event of mass COVID-19 spread.
Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the California Nurses Association, said Newsom was right to acquire more masks.
“What our nurses are seeing on the front lines in regards to personal protective equipment is rationing, and some of these resources being under lock and key, and we just can’t have that,” she said. “If we can get a whole bunch of stockpile and any other disproportionate share of the funding because we’re at the epicenter, then that’s what we need.”
UC Davis Medical Center said in a release that it is not experiencing shortages of any personal protective equipment. After some instances of theft, staff moved their supply of masks to a more secure location, according to the release.
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