N95 medical mask

The Food and Drug Administration never should have authorized the use of decontamination systems to facilitate the reuse of N95 respirators, according to an expert with National Nurses United.

In an email to Inside Health Policy, Jane Thomason, the union’s lead industrial hygienist, said that the “reuse of N95 respirators and other single-use PPE is not safe,” and that a review of the current research has shown that no decontamination method is safe or effective.

“The FDA should never have issued emergency use authorizations for N95 decontamination methods,” Thomason told the news outlet. The union is heartened by President Joe Biden’s promise to use the Defense Production Act to increase respirator supply and believes that this is a better solution to ongoing supply shortages, she said. 

In fact, it’s a plea nurses have been making for months. In September, the American Nurses Association asked the White House to invoke the DPA for N95 masks after a nationwide survey found “unacceptable” reuse levels. One in three nurses remained short on supplies, and more than half were being asked to reuse devices meant for single use, McKnight’s Clinical Daily reported at the time. The DPA, which is used to expedite the supply of materials and services from the U.S. industrial base, has been invoked earlier in the pandemic to allow quick shipment of rapid antigen testing devices to nursing homes.

Thomason’s statements were a response to a turnabout by the FDA last week. On Friday, Jan. 22, the agency reissued emergency use authorizations to some decontamination system manufacturers, this time limiting N95 respirator reuse to a maximum of four times only, versus whatever the manufacturer said its system could handle. 

The emergency use authorizations originally were granted in 2020 to allow the cleaning and reuse of single-use, disposable personal protective equipment to help alleviate supply shortages.