The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many problems during this year, including the decline of the world’s economies, countless ill people and deaths attributed to the virus, healthcare systems collapsing, and so on. But, one thing we might not have thought about is the fact that all the disposable face masks we’re wearing are adding up.
Healthcare facilities in particular are needing these items in big quantities and have to buy them in bulk and wholesale purchases. The demand has been so high that these items have become even hard to find for sale, with shortages being reported across the United States.
In this article, we’ll discuss the role of surgical masks in healthcare settings, and what the CDC says about their disposal.
The role of surgical masks in healthcare settings
Surgical masks are the most used type of face mask in the healthcare field and have been for years. They’re used by all types of healthcare providers, including doctors, nurses, dentists, and others, during procedures to protect both themselves and the patients from contamination with bodily fluids. Even though they’re often called a “regular” face mask, they need to meet strict requirements to be used in this field.
The main protection they offer is as a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and the environment that surrounds them. This way, potentially contaminated material in both liquid and solid form can’t reach the mucous membranes of the user and diseases can be prevented. During surgeries, for example, blood can be released at a high pressure, and these masks prevent them from reaching the user’s face.
Surgical masks also have a certain level of filtering abilities, which is important during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the filtering layer on these masks can only trap large particles, like bacteria, and not viruses. For antiviral purposes, N95 masks (also known as N95 respirators) are considered the best option and offer much more virus protection. They can not only filter out viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus, but also dust and smoke, among other particles with a small size, giving them multiple uses.
These protective properties work in both directions, protecting the people around the user as well. The respiratory fluids they might release into the environment are also trapped on the mask and prevents them from reaching it. This way, sterile fields where certain procedures are performed can be maintained.
These masks are designed for use in the healthcare field and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this use. Cloth masks or other disposable face masks without this regulation, and which don’t meet the strict standards for a surgical mask, can’t substitute them in these settings.
Surgical masks are disposable face masks, which means that they’re designed to be used once and then be discarded. Although, as a result of the pandemic and the increasing demand for these masks, multiple healthcare centers have to reuse them, this isn’t traditionally what is supposed to be done, and the safest thing is to discard all used face masks.
This must be done each time the user has finished using it, or as soon as they become damaged, wet, visibly dirty, or it’s becoming hard to breathe with it on. If it’s necessary, it must be replaced with a new one.
How to dispose of them according to the CDC
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an entity in the USA that has been the source for the most vital information during the pandemic. When it comes to the proper use of face masks and everything related to them, they have been the most reliable source of information for both the general public and healthcare facilities.
On their website, they offer some general information regarding surgical masks and how to use them correctly. This includes handling them by the ear loops or head straps, never touching the inside or outside of the facepiece, and discarding them in the proper place.
However, they don’t offer any other information about their disposal, and since surgical masks are only supposed to be used in healthcare settings where there’s a specific place for them correctly signaled, no other information is needed.
For the general public wearing disposable face masks, some additional information might be necessary. The Brazilian Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association (ABES) has some useful advice on how to properly dispose of any face mask that isn’t reusable: placing them in two plastic bags, one inside the other, and throwing them away with the rest of your domestic waste. This is because face masks during the pandemic represent a biological hazard for people who handle waste.
Pollution face masks are creating
Disposable items like face masks and gloves have been creating water pollution since the pandemic began, with environmental groups warning about all the negative effects the pandemic will bring with this increased need for disposable products. Marine life are especially affected by this, mistaking these items for food and potentially choking or becoming malnourished, or smaller animals becoming entangled on the ear loops of face masks or latex gloves.
Healthcare centers need these disposable face masks to be protected, and until reusable forms of these masks are created, they’re their only form of protection during the pandemic. However, the general public can stay protected with reusable cloth masks and social distancing practices, as recommended by the CDC, and this includes kids over the age of 2. Medical-grade supplies, including face shields and KN95 masks, should be reserved for the healthcare field and frontline workers.