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PPE Insights

What Are N95 Masks and Who Should Wear Them?

By April 3, 2021No Comments

With the recent Op-eds and media outlet reports regarding new, and highly transmissible, variants of COVID-19, N95 masks have become a highly sought form of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers and the public alike. But who should wear N95 masks?

Health care professionals have experience wearing and appropriately using these filtering facepiece respirators according to NIOSH and CDC guidelines. However, this information remains largely elusive to the general public, which has been so greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is an N95 mask?

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An N95 mask is an effective, high filtration, protective form of PPE. 

The N95 mask filters out 95% of very small particles and pathogens in the air when worn correctly. This is an especially important PPE type used to protect health care professionals when working closely with patients who have airborne illnesses in aerosolizing environments. N95 masks are designed to provide a flush seal against the skin without any gaps, to provide utmost protection. 

To assure appropriate fit, professionals who utilize N95s are required to undergo an annual respirator mask fit test, according to NIOSH standards. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 masks were mandated as single-use only by wearers, and the supply chain easily met health care utilization demands. 

Why are medical-grade N95 masks inaccessible in the healthcare sector?

Since March of last year, N95 masks have been in limited supply throughout hospitals internationally. The widespread number of cases and high volumes of patients with COVID-19 requiring medical care from hospitals and other group-home and post-acute care facilities, including nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, has substantially increased the demand for N95 masks amongst health care professionals treating patients with active COVID-19 infections. 

This demand has not been met by production and supply chain efforts, also impacted by COVID-19. Also, frontline healthcare workers and first responders are re-using N95s for multiple patients and often beyond one shift, which does not comply with NIOSH recommended standards pre-pandemic. These factors have resulted in a continued shortage of N95 masks since the beginning of the pandemic for both healthcare professionals and first responders, as well as limited access to obtain N95 masks on the open market.

What other masks and types of PPE do Health Care Professionals and First Responders Currently Use?

When not providing direct care to patients with active COVID-19, health care professionals use medical-grade surgical masks, nitrile gloves, and protective eyewear to protect themselves while working with coworkers and other patients. 

These simple forms of infection prevention and control assist them in protecting themselves and others while working closely together. This also allows facilities to maintain N95 masks for utilization when indicated by NIOSH and CDC guidelines for protection against known airborne diseases. 

Regardless of the type of PPE used, there is a resounding truth, accessibility to medical-grade PPE remains limited and difficult to obtain. At this time, the question of who should use N95 masks is simple: only healthcare and frontline workers.

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Katherine Hurley