Do N95 masks make a difference against COVID-19?
Yes! When mask fit tested and worn properly, an N95 respirator is one of the best ways to protect yourself from COVID-19 and its variants, like Omicron. With the onset of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, society has had to re-evaluate what face coverings provide a good amount of protection. Due to Omicron’s increased rate of transmission compared to previous strains of COVID-19, many are looking for better options than just layered cloth masks or even surgical masks. Better masking practices and equipment, especially dealing specifically with indoor settings, can help reduce the transmission of Omicron.
Who should wear an N95 mask?
N95 masks are most found in professions that need a decent source of air filtration. This can include many health professional positions, but even construction and industrial jobs. Early in the pandemic, N95 masks were largely being reserved for those in healthcare. Recently, it has been recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) that people in the general population begin to use N95 masks (or those that are highly similar). With the emergence and rapid spread of Omicron, wearing an N95 mask is a safe measure for most people to take when they expect to be in locations with many people. A person with Omicron can infect as many as 3 to 5 people close to them, so wearing an N95 mask makes it less likely that you will be one of those people.
Why should I use an N95 mask?
N95 masks are best referred to as respirators rather than masks, as they provide a higher grade of protection than most other face coverings. Something like a scarf, for example, will never reach the level of particle filtration that an N95 respirator can reach. Respirators must be airtight, so that unfiltered air does not penetrate easily, and so that water droplets cannot get through. Respirators especially shine when protecting a wearer from aerosols. All respirators are given their own rating and will be able to filter different amounts of air particles based on that rating. An N95 respirator, for example, has a rating of N95.
What should I know about respirator ratings?
The most common rating system in North America is determined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an American organization affiliated with the CDC. In the case of an N95 respirator, the “N” stands for “non-resistant” and the “95” represents the percentage of air particles that can be filtered out before reaching the wearer (a “100” is never 100% effective, but more like 99.97% effective). Non-resistant respirators are not completely lacking in resistance so to speak, as they are far more effective than wearing a simple cloth mask. However, they do offer less resistance than “R” (resistant) and “P” (oil-proof) respirators to oil-based particles. “N” rated respirators do have one strength though, that the other respirators classifications lack, and that is how long they will last. Of the three types, “N” rated respirators will typically last the longest, as in they can be worn for a longer duration.
How many times can I wear my N95 mask?
The length of time that an N95 respirator can be worn will highly depend on the circumstances of its use. Higher exposure to COVID-19 particles will result in a respirator that should be worn for a shorter amount of time, as it will quickly fill with particles that it has filtered. While the CDC states that N95 respirators could be worn for up to 8 hours, it is mostly up to the wearer to monitor the activities they are doing while they are wearing a respirator, and the buildup of moisture and such within the respirator, to determine the appropriate use of their respirator.
Here are several different scenarios where all the people are wearing N95 respirators, that can be used as an example for N95 respirator use:
John is going for a walk with a friend outdoors. They are walking in a park and there are not many people on the path that they are using. The walk will most likely last for 30 minutes. Due to the likely low exposure to COVID-19 particles because of being outside and not around many people, John could probably use the mask again for several more similar walks.
Pooja has been waiting in line outside, in the cold, for 4 hours to get a vaccine. She likely will have to wait another 4 hours. Due to the difference in temperature between the inside and outside of her respirator, it has started to feel wet. Pooja should try to change to another N95 respirator.
Abigail has been working at her desk for her office job. There are a few other people in the same room with her, but the room is rather large, and everyone is widely spaced out. She is approaching the end of her workday, so she has been at her desk for about 8 hours. Abigail should not use her respirator for another workday, but instead use a new one.
Catherine is a nurse, and she has been working on a COVID-19 floor in her hospital. She has dealt with many patients over the last 2 hours, many of which are COVID-19 positive. Catherine should try to replace her respirator as soon as possible.
As you can see, the way that an N95 respirator should be used is highly dependent on where and how the wearer opts to use it. While N95 respirators have a good rating and can protect very well against COVID-19, there are different circumstances that have an impact on their effectiveness. People who are prone to touching or fiddling with their respirators should also look to replace them more often, as constantly touching the respirator can either increase the rate at which particles are transferred to the respirator or it can displace the seal created by the respirator.
Why is having a good seal on my N95 respirator so important?
The seal created by an N95 respirator is what makes it so good at protecting against airborne particles such as COVID-19. Other face coverings, like cloth masks and even surgical masks do not create seals. A proper seal will prevent particles from entering a respirator without being filtered. The best way to have a good seal is to have a respirator that nicely fits your face. Facial hair is a detriment to creating a good seal, so those looking to properly wear an N95 respirator should be clean shaven. Finally, getting fitted for a respirator is the best way to ensure that it will fit your face in such that way that you receive maximum protection.
Where can I do a mask fit test for my N95 respirator?
If you are looking to get N95 mask fit tested, then this program has got what you need. It will use a qualitative mask fit test to simply and properly figure out if an N95 respirator fits to your face in the best way possible.
I can’t find an N95 respirator, what should I do?
N95 respirators can also be difficult to find, due to the high demand for them, and when you do find them, they are often severely overpriced. Having to buy N95 respirators to use daily can become expensive. There are N95 masks out there that won’t break the bank and that you can use during your mask fit test. If you absolutely cannot get your hands on an N95 respirator for whatever reason, then your next best bet is to use a surgical or medical mask.
Use an N95 respirator as soon as possible and get mask fit tested so that you can protect yourself and those you care about from Omicron.
If you have more questions about masks and mask fit testing, click Here.
Written By: Fabrizio Sacco
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