N95 masks have been a scarce item for the majority of the year. Once easily found for sale online with options for anyone to buy them in bulk and wholesale, they’re now items that must be reserved for their use in healthcare settings where they’re needed most.
The value of these masks comes from the fact that they can filter out at least 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, which are those with a size of 0.3 micrometers. This includes particles like pollen, coal smoke, dust, and even the flu virus and the new coronavirus.
They’re much more protective than surgical or medical masks, and some of the most used models in the United States include the 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511. They can be paired with face shields or goggles for eye protection, and they’re considered equivalent to the KN95 masks and FFP2 respirators, which are regulated under a different filtration standard.
The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), a new species of coronavirus recently discovered. The disease, which stands for “coronavirus disease 2019”, is a respiratory illness that ranges in severity from asymptomatic cases to extremely severe ones.
The severity of the disease has been linked to the person’s age, with kids being the least affected age group and older people the most affected one. Other risk factors for developing a severe form of COVID-19 include immunosuppression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, pre-existing lung disease or injury, among others.
This virus is spread from person to person when an infected individual releases droplets of fluids that contain the virus through their mouth or nose. When the virus reaches the mouth or nose of an uninfected person, the virus colonizes their airway. This is why, at least in the USA, the use of face masks is encouraged, because it prevents the fluid droplets from being released into the environment. And, since people can be asymptomatic, everyone in public settings.
Social distancing is also encouraged because the virus can be spread much more easily in situations of overcrowding. As you can imagine, planes represent a very high risk of infection because of the way the virus is spread, and people are wondering what the best way to protect themselves is.
If you’re thinking of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might think N95 respirators, based on the explanation given, would be the perfect choice for virus protection. But, one doctor has explained why that might not be the case. Dr. Salvatore Pardo is the chair of emergency medicine at the Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital, and he’s telling the general public to avoid N95 masks in flights in an interview he did with Business Insider.
Specifically, he talks about N95 respirators with a vent, also known as a port or an exhalation valve. These types of reusable N95 masks have become very popular during this year, but they might not be the best for protecting others around you. These are one-way valves because they only filter out the air in one direction: when it’s being inhaled. However, the air the wearer exhales is not being filtered, therefore he can be spreading the virus in the environment.
Doctor Pardo explains that masks are primarily used to protect those around you, and not necessarily yourself. As we mentioned, people can be infected and spread the virus but be asymptomatic, not knowing that they’re infecting other people. This is why everyone is encouraged to wear a mask in public, even if they don’t have any signs or symptoms that indicate infection from COVID-19. For this reason, he explains that masks with these exhalation vents go against the principles of wearing a mask, and are equivalent to wearing nothing.
As we mentioned earlier about N95 masks, these only work to their full potential if they fit the wearer very tightly, and this is why workers in the healthcare field have their respirators fitted before they start using them. This is done every time a new mask enters the hospital, and they’re refitted once a year. This makes sure each worker who needs to wear these respirators will always have the proper fit.
Now, the general public has been encouraged by the CDC to wear reusable cloth masks combined with social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus in public situations. N95 masks are worn only in healthcare settings, and that’s where these respirators are fitted.
If someone who isn’t wearing an N95 mask in this work environment wears an N95 mask in public without the proper fit, since they don’t have access to these fit tests, they’re not entirely sure there won’t be any leakage of air, and therefore can still be releasing unfiltered air into the environment when they exhale.
Even though N95 masks provide more protection than the other options available, wearer’s won’t get all the benefits from the mask unless it’s correctly fitted. Plus, as we mentioned, these masks are scarce and should be reserved for their use in healthcare settings.
N95 respirators with exhalation vents can only be used if the wearer stacks them on top of a cloth or disposable face mask, allowing the protection of the people around them, But, Pardo explains that N95 masks are already uncomfortable on their own, so stacking one mask on top of the other will increase this discomfort, encouraging people to take the masks off more frequently.
Dr. Pardo concludes that either cloth or disposable face masks are adequate for traveling by flight, but between the two, he would prefer disposable masks since they’re easier to replace.