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Minnesota, 3M scramble to provide flu-blocking respirators for health care workers

While attention has focused on the limited H1N1 flu vaccine supply needed to inoculate at-risk populations, a shortage of approved virus-filtering respirators has federal and state public health officials across the country scrambling to ensure adequate numbers throughout the flu season.

The shortage of the face protectors, known as N95 respirators, also has Maplewood-based 3M Co., along with other respirator manufacturers, scrambling to meet the booming global demand.

“We are definitely seeing unprecedented demand for N95 respirators,” said 3M spokesperson Jacqueline Berry. “We’ve increased production, added shifts and are running our operations 24/7.”

In addition, over the last two quarters the company has announced investment of $40 million to increase manufacturing capacity in the United States and Singapore. In the third quarter just ended, the company reported that increased demand for N95 respirators and other masks contributed an additional $80 million in revenue. Other health-related products, such as hand sanitizers, added an additional $20 million in the quarter, according to the company.

The Centers for Disease Control recently released guidelines to help prevent transmission of the H1N1 flu to health care workers while conserving limited supplies of N95 respirators. The CDC guidelines urge health care facilities to use a multilevel approach to minimize the risk. Among the recommendations were reducing exposure to infected individuals, use of physical barriers in the health care environment, employee vaccinations when available and minimizing the use of N95 respirators.

The recently released guidelines have state agencies scrambling to catch up.

The Minnesota Department of Health earlier this spring called for the use of surgical masks that are now deemed not effective against H1N1, although they have been used for protection against regular seasonal flu, according to John Linc Stine, assistant commissioner for health protection. “The Department of Health is a couple of days away from updating its guidelines,” in accordance with the new CDC guidance, Stine said.

The Minnesota Nurses Association, which had sent a letter (PDF) earlier this week, prodded the state again Thursday, issuing a statement calling on the Department of Health to recommend the N95 respirator or other federally approved personal protection devices for health care workers.  “Minnesota’s Department of Health may be putting nurses’ health at risk amidst a pandemic influenza outbreak,” the statement said.

Recognizing that some hospitals in larger urban areas face shortages of the respirators, state health officials are developing guidelines to ensure limited supplies are not used up before the end of the flu season. Some hospitals are telling the department that they do not expect an adequate supply of the respirator until the first quarter of next year, Stine said.

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