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Re-evaluating respirators on the front lines

Last Updated May 14, 2021 at 7:56 pm MDT

CALGARY (CityNews) — While the evidence for airborne transmission has built up over the past few weeks – Alberta Health Services still points to contact as the way COVID-19 spreads.

And that means doctors and nurses in hospitals may not be grabbing the kind of mask that will actually protect them.

“Given the updates we’ve seen from the CDC and the World Health Organization, those updates are very clearly talking about an inhalation risk occurring both in close proximity and across longer distances when ventilation is poor for example, I think given those updates I would like to see a re-evaluation of the stance from AHS,” said Conor Ruzycki from the Aerosol Research Lab at the University of Alberta.

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While nurses and doctors have access to fitted N95 respirators at work – AHS recommends using surgical masks unless performing a specific procedure – and leaves the choice to grab a respirator for daily work, up to each health care worker to assess.

One front line worker CityNews spoke with, who did not want to be identified, says they don’t often see N95s being used in their hospital.

“Many typical patient activities, even just simply talking, breathing, speaking, shouting, coughing especially — those sorts of regular things that we don’t associate with an actual medical procedure, those are actually producing a lot of these aerosols and if the patient is infected with COVID-19 or is actively shedding virus, that can lead to everybody being exposed,” said Ruzycki.

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CityNews reached out to AHS on if it would be updating its guidelines to recommend health care workers use N95 respirators in light of the new data in recent weeks.

They pointed to an update from the beginning of March – and said “as partners in the response to COVID-19, we trust our front line health care teams to make appropriate decisions that support their physical and mental health.”