Scott, Adams Warn CDC Against Weakening Coronavirus Protections for Health Care Workers

March 9, 2020
Press Release
Letter to Secretary Azar comes as CDC signals intent to tell health care workers that surgical masks - rather than N95 masks - are sufficient to protect against COVID-19

As originally released by the Committee on Education & Labor

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (VA-03) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chair Alma Adams (NC-12) sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Azar raising strong opposition to plans by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to weaken protections for health care workers and emergency responders caring for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. 

In recent days, the CDC has signaled plans to permit health care workers to use surgical masks under certain circumstances instead of more protective N95 filtering facepiece respirators when exposed to patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus. In the letter to Secretary Azar, the Members note that there is no evidence that surgical masks are adequate in preventing exposure to COVID-19, and express concern that equipment shortages are being used to justify putting health care workers at risk.

“In order to maintain the highest protections for health care workers, it is imperative that the current airborne precautions remain in place,” the Members wrote. “Shortages of equipment must not result in health care workers being placed at increased risk or being misled into believing that surgical masks will effectively protect them when caring for potentially infected individuals.” 

The effectiveness of N95 respirators has been demonstrated in previous public health emergencies. During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Canada, the spread of the infection in Ontario was largely blamed on poor hospital procedure in Toronto, where health care workers wore surgical masks instead of N95 respirators. However, in Vancouver, where health care workers utilized N95 respirators, the disease did not spread to a single other hospital patient or visitor. 

The Members request that the CDC work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other stakeholders to establish procedures in case of equipment shortages that do not weaken existing protections for health care workers.

Read the letter to Secretary Azar here

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