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Respirators and the Coronavirus (COVID-19): What You Need to Know

Male wearing surgical face mask

Thursday, Mar 19th, 2020

While respirators are commonly used as a first line of defense against air contaminants in fields such as construction or oil and gas, many people are wondering whether they can be useful in stopping the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.

There are differing opinions on this matter but what is most important is that you understand the types of face masks and respirators that are available, what each type is used for and how these masks can help protect you and others.

If you require a respirator at your job, you should have full training on the selection, use and maintenance of any respirator you may use. This short guide is intended simply to introduce anyone in need to the basics of respirator use and discuss the effectiveness of a respirator against the spread of COVID-19.


Different Types of Respirators

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has outlined several classes of respirators that help protect workers against various types and degrees of hazards. These masks and respirators fall into two major categories: Air-purifying or atmosphere-supplying.

Air-purifying respirator

It would be entirely unnecessary to locate and use an atmosphere-supplying respirator for the purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19. These heavy-duty respirators should be reserved for specific workplace hazards, such as firefighting.

Air-purifying respirators

On the other hand, air-purifying respirators or masks are much more common and tend to be more readily available. This category of respirator includes both loose- and tight-fitting options, both of which have their own specific uses.

Which Mask Will Protect Me?

While doctors and even the CDC are not recommending the use of masks or respirators for public use in trying to contain COVID-19, many people still choose to do so simply to be on the safe side.

Donning surgical face mask

When the average lay person thinks about face masks, they likely picture a surgical mask. These paper masks have been seen on the general public in heavily polluted or smoky areas, such as China and even Los Angeles.

While actually not recommended for use in those situations, surgical masks can help protect the wearer from large airborne droplets, such as those expelled through sneezing or coughing. They also are ideal for protecting others from the wearer’s own germs.

There is no reason to acquire a large supply of surgical face masks; in fact, the public is discouraged from doing so as it may create a shortage for hospital and other medical personnel. If you do wish to use this basic mask, it is important you know how to properly put on and remove the mask.

Donning a Face Mask

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water
  2. Determine the correct mask orientation, which typically means the colored side of the mask faces away from you
  3. Secure the mask depending on the type: Ear loops, ties or bands
  4. Mold the top edge of the mask against your nose
  5. Cover your nose, mouth and chin

Doffing a Face Mask

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water.
  2. Avoid touching the front of the mask, as this may be contaminated.
  3. Remove your mask based on the type
    • For masks with ear loops, lift both loops over your ears.
    • For masks with ties, untie the bottom ties first and pull the mask away from you as you untie the top.
    • For masks with bands, pull the bottom band, and then the top band, over the top of your head
  4. Throw the mask in the trash
  5. Wash your hands again

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Close up of respirator for N95  face

One step above the basic surgical mask is an air-filtering half-mask respirator, commonly known as an N95 (due to the fact that it is NOT resistant to oil and filters out 95% of airborne particles).

The general public should not be using an N95 mask to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus. These should be reserved for those who are properly trained on their use and are accustomed to wearing them. The thicker material and tighter seal can create a claustrophobic feeling for those not familiar with them.

However, if you have access to an N95 respirator and choose to wear it in public, you must follow all proper steps for putting on and removing the respirator, as well as for checking the seal on the mask once it is on.

Donning an N95 Respirator

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water
  2. Hold the mask close to your face, covering your nose, mouth and chin
  3. Secure the strap(s) around the back of your head. If there are two straps, do not crisscross them
  4. Mold the top edge of the mask against your nose

Checking the N95 Respirator Seal

  1. Place both hands firmly over the respirator
  2. Breathe in deeply to confirm the mask seals tightly
  3. Exhale completely and feel for any leakage
  4. Adjust the nosepiece or straps as needed

Doffing an N95 Respirator

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water.
  2. Avoid touching the front of the mask, as this may be contaminated.
  3. Remove the band over the top of your head. If there are two straps, remove the bottom band first.
  4. Throw the mask in the trash
  5. Wash your hands again

Similar to the standard surgical masks, the purchase of N95 respirators by the general public is not recommended as it may create a shortage for those who need them most.

Be Smart and Stay Safe

Rather than worry about which type of face mask could protect you, following simple health and hygiene guidelines is enough, in most cases, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Because this virus can be contracted in many ways, including through contaminated surfaces, washing your hands with soap and water before and after touching public surfaces or food is highly advisable. Additionally, avoid touching your eyes and mouth as much as possible.

If you feel sick, try to stay inside as much as possible. Even though a “self-quarantine” may not be ideal, it is the easiest way to stop the spread of any illness. If you find yourself with a high fever or you are having difficulty breathing, call your doctor to determine if you need to seek medical attention.

Just like with many illnesses, staying smart and understanding the spread of the virus is the easiest way to keep yourself healthy.

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