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Japan health ministry encouraging doctors to reuse N95 masks amid shortage fears

The Central Government Building No. 5 that houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seen in this file photo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- As the number of confirmed novel coronavirus infections in Japan continues to climb at a faster pace, medical facilities have been officially advised by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to sterilize and reuse their stocks of advanced N95 respirator masks.

Usually the masks, which include a filter that blocks at least 95% of mircoparticles including viruses, are disposed of after a single use. But with concerns rising over a shortage of essential protective materials at hospitals and other facilities fighting the virus, the ministry released an administrative circular encouraging the reuse of masks through sterilization and other means.

Medical professionals are at particularly high risk of infection during treatments for patients with severe symptoms, such as intubation. In those instances it is essential to wear an N95 mask.

The administrative circular was dated April 10 and addressed to local governments. It appealed to them to make the information known to their local medical facilities.

It said that the response to the novel coronavirus is an exceptional case, and that under the circumstances it encouraged people to try to reuse their N95 equipment. It indicated that the masks could be disinfected by wearing one per day and then using sterilizing equipment typically reserved for surgical tools to make them safe to wear again. The advice also stated that if the sterilizer is used, the masks can be used "up to two times."

Outside of sterilization methods, it also proposes distributing five N95 masks each to medical professionals, and then reusing them each in order over five-day periods. The measures are based on findings from research done abroad, which reported that the virus can survive on plastic and paper surfaces for up to 72 hours. It describes how a used N95 mask can then be kept in a well-ventilated bag and worn again after the virus particles have died naturally. No indication was given as to how many times the masks can be reused in this way, but it does ask for the products to be disposed of if they are visibly damaged or dirty.

In Europe and the U.S., many medical facilities are already running out of N95 masks, and those involved in the Japanese health care sector are sounding the alarm that hospitals and other places providing care don't have sufficient supplies.

At an April 11 meeting of the government's national task force, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "We're in a very difficult situation now where imports have fallen dramatically." He also declared that the government intends to distribute 700,000 of the masks by the end of April.

(Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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