Coronavirus Has People Asking: Are Masks or Respirators Really Effective, or Necessary?

Coronavirus Has People Asking: Are Masks or Respirators Really Effective, or Necessary?

The last two months have seen a worldwide reaction to the corona virus that has been infecting, and killing, hundreds. However, many are wondering if respirator devices are effective, or needed at all.

Daily updates about the corona virus and its new victims have been flooding news feeds lately, and the average consumer can find it difficult to keep up with the information. Many Americans in particular are experiencing a heightened concern about the virus since a handful of cases have been confirmed in the United States. However, there’s misguided information on if Americans should be concerned and what we can do about it.

Originating from Wuhan, China, the coronavirus has reached record infection levels worldwide. The most recent stats on the virus from a KFF article from February 13, 2020 shows that the majority of infection cases—and all but one reported death—from the virus are in Mainland China. Thailand and Macao have seen rising numbers as well, and there are only 13 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States.

How is the Corona Virus Spread?
According to the CDC, coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Occasionally, coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS and SARS.

Authorities are still working to determine exactly how this corona virus is transmitted. However, health officials believe that it is transmitted mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes—similar to how influenza and other respirator pathogens spread.

Despite what officials do know about the corona virus, there is still much more to learn about its transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with it. The CDC says investigations are ongoing, and the latest situation updates are available on the CDC webpage 2019 Novel  Coronavirus, Wuhan, China.

Are N95 or Surgical Masks Necessary?

Any news story or clip will show you that a large majority of the Chinese population, and increasing numbers or people in other countries, are beginning to wear surgical masks as protection from the virus. The demand for the masks skyrocketed earlier this month in China after officials recommended that Chinese citizens wear them, and since then, people have been wondering: are surgical masks needed?

One Washington Post source explains why people wear surgical masks during outbreaks and if they are necessary. The short answer is this: they can be helpful, but they are not sureproof.

According to the source, surgical masks can be effective in preventing against most respiratory viruses.

“The mask not only protects you against that droplet, but it protects you from bringing your hand—which may have virus on it—to your mucus membrane such as your nose and your mouth. There is an element of protection that it gives you,” said Colleen Kraft, chief medical officer and infectious disease expert.

However, the source explains, this is not a catch all solution, and it’s only part of the puzzle. Washing your hands often, not coughing or sneezing around other people, avoiding crowded areas, and watching what you’re touching all contribute to the spread of a virus.

Surgical masks are not the only—or arguably the best—way to protect yourself and others against respiratory viruses. However, they are a means of protection to protect your airways, Kraft said.

Surgical masks. It’s important to remember that not all face masks are made the same. The NPR article explains that surgical masks—the cheap, disposable, gauzy masks—are the most “comfortable” mask. However, scientific evidence suggests that wearing these masks might not have much of an impact on preventing the spread of viruses because they are so thin and poorly fitted, and they do not effectively block infected air.

“[Surgical masks] do provide some benefit but they’re far from foolproof… These masks fit loosely on the face around the edges, so they don't completely keep out germs, and small airborne particles can still get through.”

If you do choose to wear a respirator or a mask, make sure it fits properly by covering your nose, mouth, and chin.

Surgical N95 Respirator. Health care workers interacting with a coronavirus patient should wear a heavy-duty mask called a N95 respirator, according to one NPR article on the topic. These respirators are designed to fit tightly around the nose and mouth, and worn correctly, they can block at least 95 percent of small airborne particles.

But N95s are serious business, said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Health care workers who use these respirators are required by law to undergo an annual fit test that makes sure the mask forms a tight seal on the wearer’s face to avoid air leaks.

N95s are also “difficult to wear” because they are uncomfortable, Schaffner said. Some people find it hard to breathe while using one, but it’s protection that works.

While increasing numbers of people in China are wearing surgical masks, experts say that wearing any mask to protect against the virus in the U.S. is not necessary. Officials also say that there is no recommendation for the general U.S. public to wear N95s.

Industrial N95 Respirators. These are not the same as surgical masks or surgical N95 respirators. In fact, industrial N95 respirators are designed to reduce but cannot eliminate a wearer’s exposure against certain airborne particles and aerosols free of oil. These are particularly for industrial settings, and employers and users are required to follow the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard, 29CFR 1910.134.

These respirators also require a fit-testing and must be adjusted to your face to provide the intended effectiveness of filtering 95 percent of particles.

Because these respirators are meant for industrial settings, US health officials do not recommend that US citizens wear these for protection against coronavirus, either.

For a better, in-depth understanding of the differences between these three masks and respirators, visit the OH&S article on each product’s protection, resistance, and filter efficiency.

In the wake of this virus, it’s important to remain calm and understand the facts of the situation. Read health reports and pay attention to mandated protocol in your country and others. Like many health officials are saying: now is not the time for panic. It’s time to monitor the situation closely and understand that your mask is not the coronavirus cure.

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