Face masks have become a prominent part of our lives not only in the United States but all over the world. This has been a topic of discussion for more than 10 months now and is often surrounded by controversy regarding their efficacy for antiviral protection, as the COVID-19 pandemic represents our biggest threat. Others have taken the recommendations made by experts very seriously and began to buy masks in wholesale and bulk purchases.
One of the most talked-about masks during this situation has been the N95 mask, and a common variation we see out there is the valved N5 mask. However, many people using these masks don’t understand how these accessories work, and the reality is that they’re not useful for COVID-19 protection. Let’s understand why.
Why are valves added to some N95 masks?
With all the terms being used during the pandemic, it’s easy to get lost. We’ve been hearing about reusable versus disposable face masks, N95 and KN95 masks, face shield or no face shield, and the list of available options goes on. However, it’s important to know the difference between each one and their uses.
Many people have opted for N95 masks with valves, but they’re not suitable for every environment. On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, they explain why some respirators have exhalation valves. These are meant to reduce the breathing resistance of the mask, making it more breathable, cooler, and also reduces the moisture build-up, which prevents the fogging of eyewear.
Even though these are all beneficial to the wearer, the way in which this is achieved can make these types of masks unsuitable for some environments. A regular N95 mask filters out at least 95% of the air that is inhaled from particles that are airborne (with a size of 0.3 micrometers) and also non-oil based, like smoke, dust, and viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. They also filter out the exhaled air, which prevents the user from releasing pathogens into the air and protects people around them as well. Regular 3M N95 mask models include the 3M 8210 and the 3M 1860, which is a surgical N95 mask used in the healthcare field.
N95 masks with exhalation valves, like the 3M 8511, don’t filter out the exhaled air, and that is how they reduce the breathing resistance. They only filter out the air that is being inhaled, protecting the user from the particles found in the environment and not the other way around.
As the CDC explains, this makes these masks unsuitable for some situations. These would be the ones in which the potential release of microorganisms into the environment needs to be prevented, for example, in a healthcare setting where a sterile field is required, or for virus control.
How COVID-19 is spread among people
Even when the majority of the cases are asymptomatic and mild ones, which is a common thing among coronavirus respiratory diseases, some people can develop a serious form of the disease. The most common mild symptoms are dry cough, fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and sometimes the loss of smell or taste and gastrointestinal symptoms can be found as well. These can make the disease go unnoticed, as the mild symptoms resemble the flu, and asymptomatic patients don’t have any signs of being infected.
The people who are most vulnerable to more severe cases, on the other hand, can experience a severe lung injury that could require mechanical ventilation to breathe properly. Additionally, the virus can affect other systems in these people, leading to complications like thrombosis and multi-organ failure, which can also be life-threatening. The risk factors more commonly associated with severity are age, with the elderly being the most affected and kids being the least affected, immunosuppression, obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, and other types of organ failures.
Even though the severe cases are not the majority, they represent a considerable amount of people that, when too many people are getting infected at once, can make healthcare centers collapse, as we’ve seen happen in the USA and around the world.
For this reason, preventing the spread of the virus has been the main focus, and our main resource for this right now is face masks. Their use has been recommended throughout the pandemic, and their effectiveness has been scientifically proven. They mainly prevent people from spreading the disease, especially those who have the infection and are unaware because they’re asymptomatic.
Why N95 masks with valves are not useful during the pandemic
As we explained, the main way in which face masks are useful during the pandemic is by preventing infected people, especially those who don’t know they’re infected, from spreading the virus to everyone around them. N95 masks with an exhalation valve don’t filter out the exhaled air, and therefore infected people will be able to release the viral particles into the air, spreading the disease very easily.
N95 masks are currently being used mainly in healthcare settings, and especially in these situations, valved N95 respirators are not recommended. The viral exposure in these settings is too high, and healthcare providers are not recommended to use these types of masks.
Right now, the USA is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases, which is already translating into the collapse of healthcare centers and shortages of medical supplies. For protection, the CDC recommends reusable cloth masks for the general public to reserve medical-grade masks for healthcare and other frontline workers. Additionally, they don’t recommend the use of valved masks.