Save the masks!

In our flu planning meeting yesterday I learned from our materials management director that we are having difficulty obtaining surgical masks and that our in-house supply is being depleted. Whether this is a local problem or whether it's more widespread I don't know. But it concerns me that hospitals are implementing policies requiring asymptomatic healthcare workers to wear surgical masks at all times, in some cases those refusing to get vaccinated, in other cases universally in high-risk areas of the hospital. Perhaps we all need to take a step back and think through the long-term implications of such policies.

It seems to me that we are seeing an exceptionalism applied to H1N1 much like that applied to MRSA--that is, we are singling out certain diseases to focus attention and apply interventions while other diseases or organisms, perhaps of equal risk and impact, are not given the same attention. With regard to H1N1, the two major differences from seasonal influenza being observed are a larger population of susceptible individuals due to the antigenic shift the virus has undergone and the overall milder disease course (though there are certainly severe cases being reported). So if you think that all healthcare workers, or even just the unvaccinated fraction, should wear masks at all times during H1N1 season, are you prepared to do the same in all subsequent influenza seasons? Even if the flu season is prolonged? Even if the vaccine and circulating strains are mismatched, meaning in essence that all healthcare workers are unvaccinated? What are the triggers for starting and stopping masking? Is prolonged mask use a practical strategy? I could go on, but you get the point, I'm sure. I think a lot of policy is being driven by the media's attention on certain diseases and organisms with a short-term focus, rather than on priorities that are grounded in the magnitude of risk and impact and the long-term implications. Perhaps key questions to ask are: How many patients died in your hospital in the last month from a catheter-related bloodstream infection? How many died from ventilator-associated pneumonia? How many died from a surgical site infection? And how many died of nosocomial H1N1?

I long for the post-H1N1 era......


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