Misinformation has made people believe that the N95 mask is a magic shield against Coronavirus/COVID-19. It isn’t. It’s thought to be effective for healthcare workers trained to use them, but it seems unlikely that laypeople will get the same benefits out of them. Here’s why.
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1. You still touch the mask.
Let’s say you walk through a space, and someone sneezes droplets laden with COVID-19 particles into the air. The droplets don’t make it into your mouth, they land on the mask. Masks filter particles, but they don’t destroy them. Later, you take the mask off with your bare hands, coming into contact with the particles.
“Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” the World Health Organization points out. If you touch a dirty mask and don’t clean your hands immediately afterwards, you’ve sidestepped its potential benefit.
2. The masks are meant to have a tight-fitting seal.
“Achieving an adequate seal to the face is essential,” the CDC writes. “United States regulations require that workers undergo an annual fit test and conduct a user seal check each time the respirator is used. Workers must pass a fit test to confirm a proper seal before using a respirator in the workplace.”
How confident are you that you’ve got a perfect seal, all around, all throughout its use? In general, if the mask is easy to breathe through, you’ve probably got a leak. If it’s properly sealed, “You have to work to breathe in and out,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Live Science. “It’s a bit claustrophobic. It can get moist and hot in there. …I can wear them when I need to for about a half-hour. But then, I have to go out of the isolation room, take it off and take some deep breaths, kind of cool off, before I can go back in.”
3. The masks are meant to be disposable.
As the CDC recommends, the masks “ideally should be discarded after each patient encounter and after aerosol-generating procedures.” Unless you’re putting a new mask on each time you leave the house, rather than re-wearing yesterday’s, you’re still at risk.
So only trained healthcare workers should wear the masks?
Not necessarily. The CDC does recommend that “a facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected.”
Furthermore, “The use of facemasks also is crucial for…people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).”
Wash your hands.
Masks may prevent airborne droplets from entering your mouth or nose. But it’s important to remember that these droplets also “land on surfaces that you touch all the time, such as railings, doorknobs, elevator buttons or subway poles,” writes Brian Labus, an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada. “The average person also touches their face 23 times per hour, and about half of these touches are to the mouth, eyes, and nose, which are the mucosal surfaces that the COVID-19 virus infects.
“We public health professionals can’t stress this enough: Proper hand-washing is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from a number of diseases including COVID-19.”
In the meantime, hospitals staffed with trained professionals should be given priority for access to the masks, which are currently in short supply. Up next, we’ll look at how they’re made.