Before the pandemic, medical PPE and supplies could be easily found for sale online in the USA, with options for anyone to buy in bulk and wholesale. Now, items like N95 masks, surgical masks, face shields, and KN95 masks are scarce, and they need to be reserved for healthcare workers on the frontlines. In this article, we’ll discuss the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about N95 masks.
Inside the CDC’s website, they have a series of guidelines and information regarding N95 masks. A lot of people have been hearing or reading about them, and it’s important to know what they are, how they work, who should wear them, and other important information.
Understanding what an N95 respirator is and who must wear it
According to them, an N95 mask is also called an N95 FFR, which stands for filtering facepiece respirator. This term refers to respirators in which the filtering material is an integral part of the facepiece, that is, the mask, unlike other masks in which the filter is separate from the mask itself, like the face masks with valves. An FFR is also a negative-pressure respirator, which means the air on the inside of the mask is negative in comparison to the air pressure on the outside.
The CDC defines N95 masks as respirators that can filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles, that is, very small particles with a diameter of 0.3 micrometers. This is according to the classification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH for short. The ‘95’ represents the filtration rate, and the ‘N’ represents that it can’t filter out particles with oil in them. They’re therefore effective for protection against dust, smoke, and certain bioaerosols that include viruses like the flu or COVID-19.
As explained by the CDC, they are capable of filtering bacteria and viruses, and they recommend them to be reserved for healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. They’re one of the best disposable face masks for virus protection, as they offer high antiviral properties.
They also explain what a surgical N95 mask is, which is also called a medical respirator. They’re recommended to be used in healthcare settings by healthcare professionals who are exposed to fluid and airborne hazards. They shouldn’t be used outside of these environments, and during times of shortages like the ones we’re experiencing all over the country right now, they need to be reserved only for working in a sterile field. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, caring for infected patients doesn’t require the use of surgical N95 masks, and regular N95 respirators can be used.
Difference between N95 respirators and surgical masks
N95 masks are different from surgical masks, as the CDC explains. They can reduce the exposure to airborne particles either from aerosols and large droplets, and they’re tight-fitting, unlike surgical masks which primarily act as a physical barrier and are loose-fitting. Not everyone can wear N95 masks since they can cause difficulty breathing. This is why workers need to get fit-tests and a medical evaluation before wearing the respirator at work.
These fit tests are requirements inside the United States, since ensuring a tight seal around the face is crucial to make sure all the air inhaled and exhaled is being filtered, with minimal leakages of unfiltered air. Surgical face masks, on the other hand, don’t require any fit-tests.
Respirators with exhalation valves
The CDC also explains that respirators with exhalation valves can provide the same level of protection to the wearer, the only difference is that the valve reduces the breathing resistance. This means that it makes wearing the mask more comfortable, and breathability is higher. They also make the face feel cooler and reduces moisture build-up.
The downside with exhalation valves, which are also called one-way valves, is that the air that is exhaled goes through the valve without being filtered, which can contaminate the environment with the potential pathogens the wearer is releasing. This means that these respirators can’t be used in situations where a sterile field should be maintained, for example, during invasive procedures like surgeries, or when treating an immunocompromised patient. If respirators with exhalation valves are the only option, they can be worn with a surgical face mask that doesn’t affect the respirator’s fit.
In regards to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, respirators with exhalation valves only protect the wearer from getting infected, but they don’t prevent the wearer from potentially spreading the virus to others. As we explained, they’re one-way valves, filtering the air that is being inhaled but not the one that is being exhaled. This means these respirators aren’t effective for source control.
The NIOSH approval and expiration date
To ensure an N95 mask is legitimate and has been proven to offer the protection it is supposed to offer, NIOSH tests them and certifies whether or not they meet the requirements for each respirator type. This is indicated with a label inside the packaging or within the respirator itself. The label includes the NIOSH name spelled correctly, the approval number, lot number, model number, and filter designations. The approval number can be checked in the NIOSH Certified Equipment List.
Even though these respirators have expiration dates, in times of increased demand and decreased supply, N95 masks can be used under certain considerations when the shelf life has been surpassed. However, they make sure to point out that the effectiveness of the respirator may decrease.
Some of the most popular N95 mask models are the 3M N95 masks in the models 3M 8210 and 3M 8511. But, the CDC urges the general public to use reusable cloth masks and leave the medical-grade masks to healthcare workers. So, anyone who uses any type of face-covering, including kids over the age of 2 with a smaller size, are doing their part during this emergency.