Coronavirus: St Vincent’s hospital warns staff of difficulty in sourcing face masks

‘Ongoing availability of masks cannot be guaranteed,’ workers told in memo

St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin. Photograph: The Irish Times

St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin. Photograph: The Irish Times

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St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin has warned staff that it is facing a “considerable difficulty” in sourcing face masks, and that the “ongoing availability of masks cannot be guaranteed”.

In a memo sent to all staff on Wednesday and seen by The Irish Times, consultant microbiologists at the hospital wrote that a number of initiatives were being introduced to reduce the risk of transmission of infection from staff to patients.

From now, the need for additional mask use in areas of the hospital which are not designated for use by Covid-19 patients will be reviewed on a weekly basis. The microbiologists warned that the unnecessary use of masks “will deplete stock and increases the risk that masks will not be available when needed”.

Staff were told that FFP masks, a heavier duty variant of surgical masks, are now not needed in non-Covid-19 areas, unless the staff are engaged in a procedure that uses aerosols. Aerosol treatments result in a higher risk of virus dissemination due to the increased presence of droplets in the air.

Closely monitored

Surgical masks, the memo states, should be worn by clinical staff delivering patient care or transporting patients, catering staff delivering meals to patients, or cleaning operative working in clinical areas where patients are present.

However, it says that masks are not required in non-clinical areas. “The use of masks will be closely monitored to ensure that it is in line with this recommendation,” the memo states.

The availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, has been an issue in Ireland and around the world as healthcare services struggle to secure enough equipment to protect their staff from infection as they treat patients suffering with coronavirus, also known as Covid-19.

In Ireland, several companies have made donations to the State of money or PPE equipment directly, while the Health Service Executive has negotiated a deal with Chinese suppliers for over €200 million worth of masks, goggles, gowns and other gear.

Defective equipment

However, it emerged at the weekend that a significant quantity of the PPE secured via this deal is not suitable for use in a clinical environment. Nonetheless, the shipments are continuing, with the HSE saying it is engaged with negotiations with Chinese suppliers about the defective equipment in an effort to ensure the problem is not repeated.

The use of surgical and heavier-grade masks by healthcare professionals and the wider public has also been a bone of contention. Last week, HSE clinical lead on infection control Prof Martin Cormican wrote to staff that there is no evidence to support the wearing of surgical masks by healthcare workers for close patient encounters. However, advice across hospitals has differed on the issue, while some public health authorities, including the American Centre for Disease Control, have advised that wearing of masks in the general population is worthwhile.

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