The COVID-19 is a respiratory disease transmitted by a virus that was previously unknown to scientists around the world. It’s a new species of the genus coronavirus, viruses known to infect and cause mild respiratory illnesses in humans. However, this new species seems to be a little more concerning and lethal, and scientists are still working to understand how it works and how to treat it, developing a vaccine, and looking for ways to stop the spread of the virus.
But, the one thing experts around the world seem to agree on (for the most part), is the fact that wearing face-coverings of any type, be it a surgical or medical mask, a reusable cloth mask, KN95 masks, or N95 respirators, with or without face shields, considerable decreases the risk of transmission. However, we know N95 respirators are the best disposable face mask for virus protection, but should everyone wear them? We’ll talk about this.
First, a brief explanation of N95 masks
N95 masks are also called N95 respirators, why is that? They’re respirators, and the name comes from the classification for respirators established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH. This is the standard used to regulate respirators inside the United States, and the institution, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is in charge of testing and regulating respirators, approving that they meet the criteria for each respirator type inside their classification.
Respirators are masks or mask-like devices required in many different workplaces where respiratory hazards, harmful particles that could lead to serious health problems in people who inhale them, are present. These masks cover the mouth and nose and contain a filtering media that traps these particles, preventing the user from inhaling them.
NIOSH, as part of their job, to prevent work-related injuries or illnesses, test and certificate respirators according to the standards in their classification. They name respirators according to their resistance to oil with the letter N, R, or P (not resistant, resistant, and oil-proof, respectively), and their percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy which can be either 95, 99, or 100%. This leaves nine possible types of respirators based on the combination of these two characteristics. For example, there are N99, R95, and P100 respirators.
N95 masks, based on this classification, are not resistant to oil and filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles. This makes them effective for protection against non-oil based particles, such as the flu virus, the coronavirus, smoke, or dust. They’re the disposable face mask with the best antiviral properties, and some of the most popular models include 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8511 and 3M 8210. They’re a critical part of the PPE (personal protective equipment) of healthcare workers during the pandemic.
Who should wear them?
The CDC has recommended for most of the year for the general public to use cloth masks as their main form of face-covering during the pandemic. They have a very informative infographic on their website, where they show which face masks to use, and they recommend the public to not wear face masks intended for healthcare workers and first responders, like N95 respirators and surgical masks.
According to the FDA’s website, both surgical masks and N95 respirators should be prioritized and reserved for any type of frontline worker, including healthcare workers and first responders, whose jobs imply a high risk of infection from COVID-19. For these situations, reusable cloth masks can’t substitute either surgical or N95 masks. According to the FDA, these two face masks are critical supplies that need to be reserved for medical first responders, following the recommendations issued by the CDC as well.
Why should we prioritize them for healthcare workers?
As we explained above, N95 respirators are the best option for virus protection due to their antiviral properties and their tight fit around the face, preventing leakage from happening. They’re a great option for workers in situations where there’s a high risk of exposure to the virus and infection, and social distancing rules can’t be taken. People who find themselves in these situations include essential workers in the medical field, first responders, certain workers inside prisons, among others.
The use of cloth masks and other alternatives doesn’t offer much protection for them, and anyone who uses an N95 respirator is having the highest form of protection from a face mask. But, in the United States, these respirators have been scarce since before coronavirus cases started to increase significantly. This can be due to multiple factors, including the scarcity of certain raw materials, production not meeting the demand, among others.
But, regardless of the reasons for these shortages to be happening, healthcare providers are suffering the consequences the most. Particularly smaller healthcare centers, like nursing homes, dental offices, and private doctor consults are the professionals who are needing this supply the most. They’ve been reported to be reusing N95 respirators they do get, or having to work using alternatives to the respirator.
This is why the CDC urges the general public inside the USA to wear cloth masks, while medical-grade face masks need to be reserved for medical professionals who are already struggling to obtain them.
But, besides leaving the respirators for healthcare providers, another way to help them is by being safe and staying protected in public situations. There are many resources for face masks you can use online, with options to buy in bulk or wholesale, and options in a smaller size for kids as well. Let’s all stay safe during these trying times.