The Health Service Executive says it has sufficient supplies of medical-grade face masks to protect against Covid-19 despite a more than 10-fold increase in usage during the third wave.
Demand for FFP2 masks has soared with the massive increase in cases during the third wave of the pandemic and growing demand among staff for higher levels of protection.
The HSE acknowledges updated guidance on the situations where FFP2 masks should be used will lead to an “ongoing and significant increase in demand for the medium term”.
However, a spokeswoman said existing stock levels would continue to meet this demand “in the short term” while additional sources for buying the masks have been secured. Fresh deliveries of these supplies are due to start next week.
“No stock shortfalls are envisaged,” she added.
An FFP2 respirator is a tight-fitting mask, which creates a seal around the face and filters both the inflow and outflow of air. The use of such masks was made mandatory in Austria last month for public transport, hospitals and shops, while Germany also demands the use of medical-grade masks in many situations.
Under the revised HSE guidelines, healthcare workers should have access to a “well-fitted respirator mask such as an FFP2 and eye protection when in contact with possible or confirmed Covid-19 cases and contacts.
However, the surge in demand has caused delays in fitting, leading to concerns that staff could be at risk if they use poorly-fitted masks.
Figures released by the HSE to The Irish Times show the massive volume of PPE required by the health service to protect staff during the pandemic.
Last year, the health service used 167 million surgical masks and 4.4 million FFP2 masks.
It also went through 157 million nitrile or vinyl gloves, 60.5 million disposable aprons, 2.5 million goggles, over 5 million hand gel dispensers and 1.4 million protective suits. The latest supply to the HSE saw 15.4 million PPE items delivered last Monday.
Alarmed by what it says is an "unacceptably high" number of infections among its members, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has raised the issue of increased protection with the HSE over the past month, and with the Health and Safety Authority.
“The INMO has secured that the standard level of mask available to you should be increased to a properly fitted FFP2 mask,” it told members last week.
National Public Health Emergency Team officials said last week they were examining the Austrian initiative but stressed that supplies of medical-grade masks for health staff must be protected.
Assistant chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn urged people not to get "overly concerned" about the type of mask they were, but to focus on wearing one when required.
Demand among frontline staff for gowns and eye protection has also increased significantly due to the surge of cases after Christmas, the HSE says, but future supplies for most personal protective equipment are forecast to be “strong and stable”.