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Stockpile or Disinfect N95s? How to Maintain PPE Supply During COVID-19

With face masks, especially N95s, and other PPE (personal protective equipment) becoming necessary for the economy to reopen, businesses have to wrestle with how to pay for this extra cost. Not only do many businesses need to pay for N95s for the first time, but they’re doing it at a time when N95 and PPE costs have increased dramatically.

The reason for the increased N95 and PPE costs is that demand has soared and supply has not kept pace. Understandably, hospitals and other healthcare businesses are given priority to procure respirators, but the demand from healthcare facilities is so high that it has left few options for other businesses that need these supplies. Even some front-line healthcare workers, including Ottawa paramedics, do not have enough N95 masks.

In a time of increased demand and prices for PPE, decontamination technology has stepped in to save the day for many businesses. But does the cost of PPE actually justify use of decontamination? Is stockpiling PPE still a better option? Let’s look at the facts.

PPE Costs Have Surged for Businesses

PPE costs have increased more than 1000% in some places. According to one analysis, the cost of N95 masks went up from $0.38 to $5.75 each (1,513% increase), vinyl protective gloves went from $0.02 to $0.06 (300% increase), face shields were up from $0.50 to $4 (900% increase), and paper gowns went from $0.25 to $5 (2,000% increase).

n95 masks and respirators

In the US, states dealing with COVID-19 surges are bidding against each other for PPE, driving up the global price for masks, gloves, face shields and gowns. There have also been cases of price gouging in the US. 3M, the largest N95 producer in the US, has open litigation against another company selling overpriced N95 masks.

The shortage has even advanced into the raw material supply chain. There is a shortage of paper that is used to make protective gowns, causing paper to sell for about 8 times what it was before the pandemic. PPE producers in the US have gone so far as to call multiple countries to see if they have any paper to sell.

Governments in Canada had been stepping in to help businesses with PPE supplies, but this support is ending, leaving businesses to shoulder the burden of these costs. One owner of a physiotherapy clinic says that procedural masks from a private supplier went from about $0.40 to $2 during the course of the pandemic. Likewise, a pack of gloves costs $20, up from $10 before COVID-19 struck.

Some businesses are applying a COVID-19 surcharge to cover the costs. However, this is difficult when many businesses are trying to attract customers during a large recession. For instance, dentists may need more or less PPE depending on the procedure they are doing and the risk of transmission involved. However, many people are nervous to go back to the dentist at the moment, so dental offices may not be in a position to charge more than usual for a procedure.

How to Maintain PPE Supply for a Second Wave

Public health experts are saying there is a very good chance of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. The healthcare system, as well as businesses that hope to stay open, can’t afford to run out of PPE in the case of a second wave. But in this time of increased PPE costs, what are the options for maintaining a sufficient PPE supply?

1. Stockpiling PPE

“Stockpiling” means gathering enough ahead of a time of increased demand, in order to prevent a shortage. Stockpiling PPE is one option for preparing for a second wave; however, is it worth the cost?

COVID-19 has brought attention to government attempts to stockpile PPE that have gone awry. The Ontario government stockpiled N95 face masks after the 2003 SARS epidemic but had to destroy 55 million of them because they had reached their best before date. The federal government also destroyed 2 million masks that had expired. Then, COVID-19 struck and they both had to set up new domestic PPE, including N95, supply chains to fortify their stockpiles.

This illustrates one of the big drawbacks of stockpiling N95 masks. The products are expensive and they expire, so you have to keep replacing and replenishing. Large institutions (public or private) often have trouble justifying costs for something that has a low but real possibility of happening (such as a pandemic), so they tend to let their stockpile dwindle until it’s not big enough to have any real benefit.

There are also logistics costs beyond just the cost of the PPE products, such as warehousing, security, and shipping costs. The ethics of hoarding PPE in a time when front-line workers are running out may also be questionable.

2. Disinfection of PPE

Disinfection of PPE has been gaining more and more popularity as a viable alternative to stockpiling. We have a blog post explaining in detail how the technology works and why it’s safe.

Current N95 mask models can easily withstand 10 uses and decontaminations, according to research, so a stock of N95s being disinfected goes 10 times farther than one with no disinfection.

Research suggests decontamination is safer than using expired PPE from old stockpiles. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) does not recommend use of expired face masks except in urgent situations and only by those with lower risk of exposure. Some N95 models have failed tests for use after their expiry date, and the models that passed have only been tested up to 13 years after manufacture. None have been tested for fluid resistance or flammability.

The Best Way to Maintain PPE Supply is…

Based on the surging prices for PPE, and the large logistics costs, stockpiling is probably not the best way to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19. Based on the research-backed safety and cost-effectiveness of disinfection, it is a better way to preserve PPE supply in advance of a potential second wave.

covid-19 mask cleaning machine

SteriRight uses the latest technology to bring mobile N95 mask reprocessing and decontamination services to local businesses. The high-tech machines that SteriRight uses combine UV-C, hydrogen peroxide and ozone to make compounds that kill highly-resistant pathogens, like the novel coronavirus.

This process is cost-effective, environmentally-friendly and fast. SteriRight’s machine can sanitize hundreds of masks per hour. Masks are loaded into a tray that is placed on a conveyor belt. The entire process is completed in less than a minute.

So how do you access this great technology? Simply call SteriRight or fill out a contact form to set up a time for us to visit.

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