Why don’t all healthcare workers wear N95 masks?

Healthcare workers risk getting the novel coronavirus every time they go on their shifts. A lot of them care for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, increasing their exposure to the virus and subsequently their risk of being infected. Worse, they may bring the virus back home. 

Healthcare staff needs to use proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce the risk of getting the virus. However, when the pandemic started, there was a supply shortage of N95 masks and many workers had to reuse their N95 masks or use whatever was available. 

What is an N95 mask and why do healthcare workers need them? 

An N95 mask is a type of respiratory protective device that is worn on the face and covers the wearer’s mouth and nose. An N95 mask has the ability to filter out at least 95 percent of tiny airborne particles, particularly 0.3 microns in diameter.

An N95 mask has a tight fit and its edges create a seal over the user’s nose and mouth. With a good facial fit, the air you breathe goes to the filter media of the N95 mask. A tight seal prevents airborne particles from bypassing the filter and entering the user’s mouth and nose. Simply put, an N95 mask offers a higher level of protection compared to cloth masks and surgical masks.

Healthcare workers need to wear an N95 mask to reduce the risk of infection, especially when looking after patients with COVID-19. Respiratory droplets are generated every time a person talks, coughs, or sneezes. These droplets may contain viruses and bacteria that can infect anyone nearby. An N95 mask protects healthcare workers from these tiny airborne particles.  

Surgical masks trap the user’s respiratory secretions and prevent them from infecting others. Similarly, a surgical mask protects the wearer by blocking large droplets and splashes of liquid that may contain harmful organisms. However, a surgical mask does not filter out small airborne particles. Furthermore, certain medical procedures generate an aerosol, which cannot be filtered out by cloth or surgical masks.

Types of N95 masks

Standard N95 masks are NIOSH approved and protect the wearer from airborne particles. A standard N95 mask is worn for respiratory protection when the user might be exposed to airborne hazards.

A surgical N95 mask, on the other hand, is NIOSH approved as an N95 and FDA cleared as a surgical mask. A surgical N95 mask is like a standard N95 mask but is fluid-resistant. A surgical N95 mask is used when the wearer needs respiratory protection and at the same time needs a mask that can contain the user’s respiratory droplets.  

Why don’t all healthcare workers wear N95 masks?

As much as an N95 mask is the ideal mask for healthcare personnel, not all healthcare workers wear N95 masks due to supply issues. The shortage was worse when the pandemic began, and even if the production of N95 masks has picked up, some facilities still do not have enough N95 masks for their staff.

When facilities determine who should wear what, they typically reserve their supply of surgical N95 masks to staff who perform surgery and those who require respiratory protection while looking after infected patients. Surgical N95 masks are also provided to workers who are exposed to high-velocity streams and sprays of liquid and blood, as well as those who are tasked to do aerosol-generating procedures. These are the people who have the highest risk of getting the virus. 

Then again, it is still ideal for all healthcare workers to wear a surgical N95 mask when possible. If not available, a standard N95 mask can be worn to reduce exposure to airborne particles generated by the patient. In the absence of N95 masks, healthcare workers use surgical masks. A surgical mask may provide adequate protection for workers who perform non-emergency evaluation and other non-aerosol-generating procedures.

N95 masks for members of the public

It can be tempting to choose an N95 mask over other types of face masks because of its excellent filtering efficiency. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend cloth coverings for the general public, there is no question that an N95 mask offers better protection. 

If your mask of choice is the N95 mask, you have to choose the right model and size. It is also important to pass a fit test and perform a user seal check each time you don an N95 mask. An N95 mask may not effectively filter out airborne particles if it does not create a seal on your face. This is why N95 masks are ideally worn by healthcare staff as fit tests are not typically done in the community. 

Instead of an N95 mask, you may pick a cloth mask that has at least two layers of breathable fabric. You can also use a surgical mask because it is cheaper and easier to find than N95 masks. What is important is you handle your face mask properly.

N95 masks have become very popular, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of its popularity, it’s not surprising that counterfeit N95 masks are also sold in the market. So when shopping for an N95 mask, pick a genuine, NIOSH-certified mask. Go for reliable stores that have been selling N95 masks even before the pandemic. You simply cannot make a mistake when buying face masks as they plan an integral role in protecting you and slowing down the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

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