Why some hospitals ask patients, visitors to ditch N95s

Hospitals across the country often ask patients and visitors to swap out their N95s with surgical masks in line with CDC guidelines, which public health experts say are outdated, according to Politico.

Many health systems — such as Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and Munson Healthcare in Traverse City, Mich. — ask patients to replace or cover their masks with a surgical mask supplied by the facility for quality control, according to the report. Most clinicians in hospitals also wear surgical masks when interacting with patients, per CDC recommendations. 

Studies show N95 masks offer better protection against airborne viruses, as they create a tighter seal around the face. Health experts have expressed concern that broad use of surgical masks in hospitals are putting vulnerable people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

"It's baffling," Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Politico. "This is something where the CDC has been on the wrong side for a long time."

Dr. Emanuel, who has advised President Joe Biden's administration on its pandemic response, said his daughter was recently asked to replace her N95 with a surgical mask at Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital. The hospital told Politico it follows CDC guidance and updated its policy in late January to allow patients to keep N95s on if they wear surgical masks over them. 

The CDC and the White House's COVID-19 response team declined Politico's request for comment. However, the entities have previously said surgical masks offer sufficient protection against the virus in many situations within hospitals. 

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