Should you give surgical masks to family members?

With a new wave of COVID-19 cases being experienced in the United States, the increase in the demand for personal protective equipment in hospitals is expected to be near us. Although face masks are needed by everyone, certain situations and environments need more protective ones than others.

Different types of face masks have different purposes for different situations. In healthcare centers in the USA, as well as other facilities in which frontline workers are closely exposed to COVID-19, the highest efficacy is needed for protection. This often involves several layers of PPE, which includes face shields, gloves, gowns, surgical masks, and more.

Surgical masks are some of the most widely used face masks in the healthcare field, and have gained more importance as a result of the pandemic. Should you give them to family members if they’re available to you? Let’s analyze this.

If you can find surgical masks, donate them to frontline workers!

All types of medical supplies are currently being reserved for frontline workers, especially those in large healthcare facilities and hospitals. If your family members are not one of them, surgical mask are not necessary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been warning about the incredible need for medical supplies, especially masks and respirators.

For the general public, which includes kids above the age of 2, they encourage the use of reusable cloth masks. Unlike medical-grade masks, these have been widely available for sale in both physical and online stores, and regular people have no problem to buy them in bulk and wholesale. If you’re thinking about giving your family members a gift, these are the types of mask you should be thinking about, since they’re the recommended ones for daily activities where a six-foot distance from other people can be maintained.

If, for some reason, you have these or any other type of medical supply or mask, including N95 respirators, Kn95 masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, or hand sanitizer, the best use you can give them is in a healthcare center near you. Donating these items to frontline workers in your region who need them is very easy, and the resources and information are widely available online.

For a list of ways to donate both personal protective equipment and funds, you can read this article and check out the list of resources they provide.

Why are surgical masks in particular important for frontline workers?

Surgical masks have always been the most used type of face mask in the healthcare field. They’re an indispensable and have many uses during all types of procedures, including not only surgical ones, but also medical and dental ones. You probably can recognize them pretty easily because of their characteristic blue and white color and ear loops.

The outer layer of these masks is repellent to fluids, which is why these masks act as a physical barrier between the solid or liquid materials released into the environment during procedures, and the mouth and nose of the wearer. If these materials were contaminated, contact with the mucous membranes could cause the transmission of certain diseases.

For example, COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets and aerosols, and preventing them from being in contact with the mouth and nose would also prevent their inhalation and infection with this disease.

The middle layer is a filter, but this filter media is not very effective for viruses, they’re designed for larger particles, like bacteria. So, even though surgical masks can protect the user from being infected with respiratory viruses, like the flu or the coronavirus, they’re not the most efficient ones for this task.

N95 masks are the preferred face mask for virus protection, as their antiviral properties surpass those from surgical masks. Their filters have the capacity to filter out airborne particles, like viruses, dust, or smoke, with a 95% efficacy rate. Some popular N95 mask models are the 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860, all 3M N95 masks. However, if these aren’t available in a healthcare center, surgical masks could substitute them as the next best mask.

Finally the inner layer of surgical masks can absorb moisture. This is important, because this means the not only protect the user, but also the people around them. When we breathe, sneeze, talk, or cough, we release droplets and sprays of respirator fluid that could contain microorganisms, some of them pathogenic and some not.

By absorbing all these fluids the wearer releases, the mask is preventing the spread of potentially harmful particles. For example, during a surgical procedure, the usually harmless microorganisms found in the mouth or nose of the healthcare provider could cause an infection on the surgery wound, and face masks prevent this. Likewise, this allows the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus inside healthcare settings.

However, surgical masks are disposable face masks, meaning that they’re not designed to be reusable. After being used, or as soon as the mask is visibly dirty, damaged, or wet, it must be discarded and replaced with a new one if necessary. Although many decontamination processes have been developed to reuse disposable masks and respirators, this isn’t the ideal situation. These masks have also become scarce during the pandemic, and although they’re not the most effective one for virus protection, they’re still very crucial.

Once again, we remind our readers to keep staying protected on public settings, maintaining social distancing, and washing your hands. Follow the guidelines provided by the CDC, and make sure to wear masks that are not being required in healthcare centers for protection of their workers. 

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