The medical field is currently scrambling to provide its workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the most sought-after pieces of equipment is the N95, a respirator mask that’s been demonstrated to protect effectively against transmission. However, other models, such as R95 and N99 masks, have emerged as alternatives, prompting questions about what distinguishes them and which mask works best.
What Are the Types of Mask?
This week, Fast Company shared a report on the different types of respirator masks floating around. Something it brings to light: there’s a big difference between respirator masks like the N95, N99 and R95 masks and the cloth masks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended.
Respirator masks differ from these and surgical masks in that they form a tight seal around the face, leaving no room on the sides.
The letters and numbers in the names represent the amount of tiny particles a mask can filter out. There are three-letter designations based on how resistant they are to oil-based particles. They are N for non-resistant, R for resistant, and P for partially resistant. Because COVID-19 particles aren’t oil-based, N-type masks can block them.
Meanwhile, the numbers refer to the percentage of airborne particles the mask can filter out. So, for example, the N99 mask is not resistant to oil-based particles, but is capable of filtering 99% of other airborne particles.
Protection, With Drawbacks
With higher filtration rates, however, breathing becomes more difficult. Most respirator masks are designed to be worn only for limited periods of time and aren’t necessarily ideal for medical work. However, Fast Company points out that in the current situation, they might be the best options available for many health workers.
Respirator masks also require some degree of training to use effectively, according to health professionals Joseph G. Allen and David Christiani. Writing for Stat news, the professor and physician, respectively, urged a larger focus on respirator training for health workers, noting that achieving a seal around the face “is not possible in someone with a full beard,” for example.
“Wearing a respirator incorrectly poses a dual risk,” they wrote. “First, an incorrectly worn mask will fail to protect the user from respiratory hazards like [COVID-19]. Second, an improperly worn mask can give health care workers a false sense of security that they are being protected in a high-risk environment when they really aren’t.”
An Urgent Need
The bottom line — unless you’re a health professional working with COVID-19 patients, your best bet is sheltering at home and using a cloth mask if you need to go out. As the Fast Company report notes, there’s currently a global shortage of N95 masks, and as such, “All N95s should go to those on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus.”