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Disaster Planning Conference Focuses On Swine Flu

— About 800 members of the California Hospital Association met in Sacramento on Tuesday to prepare for a possible swine flu epidemic this fall. One key issue the state’s hospitals face is how to protect their workers from contracting the virus as they treat sick patients. The state’s recommending that those workers wear respirators. KPCC’s Julie Small reports that across the country, those masks are in short supply.

State public health officials told hospital administrators, nurses, doctors and other staff that they should wear respirator masks to avoid getting the H1N1 virus is. But there’s a catch:

“A lot of hospitals have had problems accessing supplies of respirators and have had shortages and so-on and that’s been a real problem,” says Kathleen Harriman with the State Dept. of Public Health.

Harriman says the respirator shortage prompted her department and Cal/OSHA to develop safety guidelines for workers to re-wear or “re-don” the same respirator masks throughout the day.

“Probably not for more than an eight-hour shift, but doing it very carefully because the outside of a respirator could be contaminated with the influenza virus and you certainly don’t want to get your hands contaminated and then inoculate a mucus membrane and get infected that way.

The respirator supply crunch puts hospital managers in an awkward position. Wendy Thomas manages emergency room nurses at Petaluma Hospital in Sonoma County.

“There’s a lot of controversy over are we protecting the staff enough by allowing them to re-don their masks and some hospitals philosophies, including ours, is that I’d rather you have a mask that you re-don then no mask at all to protect you,” she says.

But some hospital representatives at the conference said the state should do more to address the shortage of respirators. California has stockpiled 50 million of the respirator masks.

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