Nurses at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland say they're alarmed by a Counties Manukau District Health Board plan to recycle personal protective equipment (PPE).
RNZ has been shown an email sent to Counties Manukau DHB staff asking for bins or plastic bags to be set up to collect N95 masks, safety glasses, goggles or visors.
It says "following close inspection, suitable items of our PPE that can be decontaminated and recycled for safe use, will be reprocessed".
A nurse at the DHB's Middlemore Hospital said the package of the N95 masks clearly states "do not reuse" and she didn't understand the policy change.
"After the single use, you have to chuck it in the rubbish bin and they should never be reused. That's what it was before," she said.
She said she has heard of one study overseas about recycling PPE but she didn't think that New Zealand should be doing it.
"I think it's really unsafe. It's not evidence-based and they didn't really tell us how they're going to recycle."
Another nurse said recyling bins have already been set up at her department but she tried not to throw her used PPE in there before she's convinced it's safe to do so.
"If they're not able to decontaminate them properly, are we going to get cross-infections?"
She said frontline medical staff need reassurance from the Ministry of Health that what the hospital does is safe and effective.
"Also according to the Ministry of Health, we're not supposed to reuse any mask. I don't know whether there's conflict between them [the ministry and the hospital]," she said.
A third nurse at Middlemore said she was shocked when she heard about this initiative and wrote to ask the hospital's infection control team.
She was told the process was investigated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States and is safe, and the recycled PPE are to be kept as emergency supplies.
She said for such recycling to be done in the United States, it needs to be authorised by the FDA and she's questioning whether her hospital has got authorisation from the Ministry of Health.
"I think we do need more clarification from our organisational management about who authorised this. It means is this legal in New Zealand?"
The Ministry of Health told RNZ in a statement that reusing N95 masks or PPE "is not the Ministry's current guidance".
"The Ministry remains confident that there are sufficient levels of PPE available for the entire health sector," it said.
The Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said yesterday recycling should only be carried out if there is a shortage of equipment.
"We're not sponsoring that but there's some work looking at whether you can clean and reuse PPE and I agree with the WHO that you should only do that if you have a shortage which we don't... I wouldn't expect they would be reusing or recycling it," he said.
In a statement from Counties Manukau District Health Board, infetious diseases specialist David Holland said the reprocessing of some masks was to provide a last resort backup.
"As far as wearing N95 masks is concerned, our policy is to use single-use items," he said.
"The reprocessing of some N95 masks is being performed to provide a last resort back up in the unlikely event that N95 masks were exhausted."
This followed a Federal Drug Agency study completed in 2016 which investigated the reprocessing of the masks.
"We see this as a prudent precaution," Dr Holland said.