According to Marla Ahlgrimm, there are a few different mask options when it comes to coronavirus protection. These are respirator, surgical, and cloth.
A respirator mask is one that is fitted to an individual. They are proven to form a seal and are highly effective at filtering out viruses, dust, bacteria, and other pathogens. Respirators meet NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) standards.
There are three levels of respirator mask. Marla Ahlgrimm explains the most common is the N95, which filters 95% of potentially harmful particles. It is important to keep in mind, however, that it only filters particles between 100 and 300 nm. The coronavirus is estimated to be 125 nm. The next step up is N99, which, as the name suggests, filters out 99% of particles. The highest possible level of protection is the N100, which only allows .3% of airborne particles to enter.
The majority of respirator masks are easy to use and offer a high level of protection. Marla Ahlgrimm explains that respirators are best used in a healthcare setting as they can be monitored closely for an accurate fit. The biggest drawback is that they do not filter outgoing air, and sick people may spread the virus while wearing a respirator.
The next type of mask is surgical. Most people are familiar with surgical masks, as they are the common blue-and-white, single-use offerings available at physicians offices for patients with a viral illness. Marla Ahlgrimm explains these are not required to meet NIOSH standards, and they don’t form a seal against the face. Unfortunately, surgical masks are much easier to use incorrectly, and they may only filter out 10% of pathogens. Several randomized trials found that, when used properly, they are effective; however, the vast majority of wearers do not adhere to wearing standards.
Cloth masks, says Marla Ahlgrimm, are the least effective but are the most accessible as they can be made from materials found at home. T-shirts, sheets, and other pieces of cloth may be quickly and easily cut to form a tie-in-place mask. These DIY options offer very little protection but do help reduce the spread of droplets from coughs and sneezes. Marla Ahlgrimm explains that this is important in close-contact settings, such as the grocery store or an elevator.
Marla Ahlgrimm explains that the CDC recommends mask-wearing for the general public. CDC guidelines suggest masks can help reduce the spread of the virus in places like pharmacies, jobsites, and grocery stores. The WHO does not recommend masks for the general population.
How to wear a face mask
Wearing a face mask is only effective if done so properly. Marla Ahlgrimm notes that this means users should wash their hands each time they put on and remove their face covering. Masks should never be touched on the front, only by the ties or ear loops. They should have a tight-fitting seal, but should not hinder the wearer’s breathing efforts.
Marla Ahlgrimm suggests that individuals concerned or interested in mask-wearing speak with their primary health care provider. They will be up-to-date on the most recent CDC and WHO recommendations, and can offer tailored advice based on everything from localized spread to individual health.