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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Central Illinois Hospitals Ration, Experiment To Maintain Mask Supplies

Nurse wearing a facemask
Teresa Crawford
Cynthia Riemer, an emergency room nurse at the University of Illinois Hospital, poses for a portrait outside the hospital in Chicago on April 6, 2020.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Central Illinois remains relatively low compared to Chicago and other metropolitan areas across the country, but many hospitals are still struggling to maintain an adequate supply of N95 masks without rationing and some creativity.

OSF HealthCare, which operates hospitals in Bloomington, Peoria and Pontiac, has been using donated cloth masks in some cases.

“We are working to follow the latest CDC guidelines in ensuring we are offering the best levels of protection to our mission partners, patients and those who come to us seeking care,” said Lori Grooms, director of infection-prevention control for OSF.

OSF  also is experimenting with ways to extend the use of its N95 masks through decontamination.

“Some of these include drying methods and sterilization methods as described by the CDC,” Grooms said. “As we evaluate these methods, we continue to educate those using them on proper strategies to ensure fit and protection.”

Grooms said OSF's most common strategy is to have staff wear a mask "consistently over a period of time" during their shift. 

The CDC recommends extended use over reuse because it involves touching the mask less and reduces the risk of contamination. 

John Burr, a pulmonologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, said the hospital has maintained an adequate supply of N95 masks, but has limited staff to one mask per day. Physicians and nurses must keep the mask in a paper bag when they aren’t using it and must throw it out after their shift.

“We’ve not gotten to the point here where we’ve had to make our own masks,” Burr said during a videoconference with the McLean County Health Department on Thursday. “We’ve been able to keep the supply at Advocate high enough that we’ve been able to take care of our hospital at least.”

Burr added other Advocate facilities, particularly in the Chicago area, have had more challenges maintaining sufficient PPE supplies and noted some have had higher rates of infection among medical staff.

“We’ve not had to do multiple days (of N95 use) use like some of the hospitals,” Burr said. “We also think that’s probably not an effective way to isolate people.”

The McLean County Health Department reports 10 of the county’s 82 COVID-19 cases are medical professionals.

Illinois, like many states, has been scrambling to purchase masks and other PPE supplies to fight COVID-19. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza reported Wednesday Illinois has spent $174 million on medical supplies.

Some of the masks the state purchased from China may not help. The CDC has said the KN95 masks Illinois and other state have purchased are not an acceptable alternative. Missouri has recalled its supply of the masks. Illinois purchased $17 million of them.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said it will not recall that masks, stating they may provide "equal or greater protection under these circumstances" than cloth or other medical-grade masks.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the Illinois Department of Public Health's guidance on the use of KN95 masks.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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