In case of an influenza outbreak, Avian Influenza or Bird Flu, TB, SARS, Ebola and Small Pox or something like novel coronavirus, one important piece of personal protection might also seem like the least obvious: a proper respirator.
One of the most affordable types of general-purpose respirator masks is known by its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) rating: N95. The ‘N95’ designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles.
N95 masks are an essential supply during many disasters as dust and other contaminants may be in the air. In a pandemic it will be common for people to wear masks in public for several weeks. Facilities may bar entry to those not wearing a mask.
These masks, available in a wide variety of designs and colors, all serve the same purpose: to protect the wearer from liquid and airborne particles contaminating the face.
Novel coronavirus and other Type-A influenzas such as Bird Flu are commonly spread through inhaling respiratory droplets expelled from a sneeze or a cough. Masks form a protective barrier for the user either in public or anywhere you may come in contact with an infectious person or agent.
N95 respirators are the PPE (personal protective equipment) most often used to control exposures to infections transmitted via the airborne route, though their effectiveness is highly dependent upon proper fit and use.
To work as expected, an N95 respirator requires a proper fit to your face. Generally, to check for proper fit, you should put on your respirator and adjust the straps so that the respirator fits tightly but comfortably to your face. An adjustable nose-piece and inner foam provide a custom seal for different facial sizes. Having a good seal is critical for effective mask use. Seal is so important that OSHA requires fit testing of all respirators used in the occupational setting. For information on proper fit, refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.
You should only use an N95 mask that is certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Some inexpensive respirators do not carry NIOSH approval. The N-95 respirators provide superior protection compared to that offered by surgical masks and standard nuisance dust masks. Look for the NIOSH logo and the test and certification (TC) approval number on the mask or packaging. Masks that are not certified by NIOSH may not provide adequate protection to you.
FDA has cleared the following N95 respirators for use by the general public in public health medical emergencies:
- 3M™ Particulate Respirator 8670F
- 3M™ Particulate Respirator 8612F
- Pasture Tm F550G Respirator
- Pasture Tm A520G Respirator
All FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labeled as “single use”, disposable devices. If your respirator is damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should remove the respirator, discard it properly, and replace it with a new one.
Do face masks work against SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?
While N95 masks are best, many experts are skeptical in regards to the effectiveness of surgical masks and cloth masks worn by the public in protecting wearers from airborne viruses.
While they may be helpful in lowering your risk of contracting a virus through the “splash” from a sneeze or cough, they don’t work as well as some people think. The N95 mask is more effective than the routine surgical mask, but they’re still not totally effective. They are oftentimes worn too loose, they have no air filter, and most importantly, they leave the eyes exposed. N95 masks complies with OSHA bloodborne pathogen standards when worn properly and with protective eyewear.
N95 respirators are recommended by the CDC only for use by healthcare personnel who need protection from both airborne and fluid hazards (e.g., splashes, sprays). These respirators are not recommended by CDC for use or needed outside of healthcare settings largely because they are often worn incorrectly.
Although not recommended outside of a healthcare setting, if you are caring for a person or around people exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, I would think it wise to adhere to medical professional guidance and wear personal protective equipment like N95 masks. They’re probably not needed in your everyday environments. I suspect these masks are more effective in preventing the “spreading” of a virus and less effective in preventing one from exposure. Since coronavirus is easily spread through coughing and sneezing, these masks would be helpful in containing those virus carrying droplets.
Masks are typically available from your local medical supply, hardware stores or home improvement centers. You can also find a wide variety of masks available online. Amazon is currently prioritizing N95 masks for hospitals and government agencies. Naturally, during times of a pandemic scare, supplies of N95 masks can become scarce. Therefore, I don’t recommend you wait for an outbreak… get some of these masks in your emergency supplies now.