Mumbai: Faced with N95 masks shortage, doctors and health workers use scarves, 3-ply masks

Tabassum Barnagarwala
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Doctors and nurses have been given 2-ply and 3-ply masks, the ward boys and security have been given two green or white coloured cloth pieces attached with strings. They are supposed to wash it and reuse. (Representational/AP Photo)

At KEM Hospital’s department of transfusion medicine, which regularly holds blood donation camps, there is enough reason to be scared. Doctors and nurses have been given 2-ply and 3-ply masks, while ward staff and security personnel have been given two green or white pieces of cloth attached with string, which they are supposed to wash and reuse.

At a time when World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly stressed on the need to safeguard healthcare workers, who are at high risk, doctors in government hospitals have complained that they have not been provided N95 masks.

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The N-95 masks are currently being sold at Rs 500-600 in medical stores. (Express)Personal protective equipment (PPE) is only available for health workers at Kasturba and Seven Hills. In Spain, over 5,400 health workers have been diagnosed with coronavirus (COVID-19), more than 10 per cent of the total case burden.

The Indian Express visited three government hospitals in Mumbai where security guards are either using scarves to cover their nose and mouth or have cotton masks provided by the hospital. At gate 7 of KEM hospital, a security guard said he was repeatedly denied masks by nurses “as there is limited stock”. He wraps a scarf around his face while on duty. His colleague got lucky, and has two cotton masks.

A social worker said, “The situation is bad. We have to beg for masks and not everyone is provided one. The worst affected are ward and security staff.”

At St George’s hospital, security personnel said they were told that masks were short in supply. Doctors in the casualty ward are wearing disposable 3-ply masks to examine patients. “We can’t complain, N95 is not in stock or kept reserved for future need,” a doctor said.

A ward boy at Kandivali Shatabdi hospital said he got two cloth masks from the BMC. “I used them for several days. Now I have no time to wash, so I bought one for myself. But they are expensive,” he added.

At KEM hospital, a doctor from the blood bank said the 2-ply and 3-ply masks given to them offered little protection against the virus. “We hold blood donation drives and come in close contact with patients who come for platelet transfusion. We have repeatedly asked for N95 masks.”

A N95 mask filters 95 per cent airborne particles if worn correctly. A disposable 3-ply or 2-ply mask is made from polypropylene non-woven fabric that is best for ill persons so as to ensure their cough or sneeze does not become airborne. If worn by a health worker, it may not entirely protect them against coronavirus. A mask made of cotton too can provide protection but not 100 per cent. For others, a handkerchief or scarf can work, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US recommends a mask for health workers.

The Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors has written to the medical education ministry to provide PPE and N95 masks for close to 4,000 resident doctors working in the state's government hospitals.

“If one doctor gets infected, we will transfer to all others. Doctors are sometimes on 24-hour duty,” said a resident doctor from KEM hospital.

At Nair hospital, on Thursday, N95 masks were distributed to all resident doctors. “But the stock is limited, instead of using it once and throwing it, we will use the mask for three to four days,” said Dr Satish Tandel, representative of resident doctors.

At present, N95 masks are being sold at Rs 500 to Rs 600 at medical stores. The health ministry has capped its sale at MRP. A chemist in Veera Desai said they were buying masks at higher rates from distributors and were forced to sell beyond the MRP. Vikas Biyani, Joint Commissioner (Drugs), Food and Drug Administration, said they had taken action against 25 retailers for selling masks above the MRP. “We have seized masks worth Rs 1.55 crore and seized the stock from 33 manufacturers and suppliers in the state,” Biyani said.

State Health Minister Rajesh Tope said, “We have put bulk orders for N95 masks at a state level. We held a meeting with Haffkine Institute to speed up the process of procurement of masks.”

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study on the surface stability of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. According to the study, the virus remains longer on stainless steel and plastic surfaces than copper and cardboard, and can sustain in the form of aerosols (suspended particles in the air) for some time.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, at a virtual press conference, said, “It is important that healthcare workers take additional precautions.”

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