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A s the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases increase around the world and manufacturers fail to meet demands for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-approved face masks, it’s important to understand why face mask shortages occur and how you can protect yourself from contracting diseases like COVID-19.

N95 respiratory masks are a thicker, tighter fitting variety of face mask that significantly reduces the inhalation of pathogens and particles when used properly. When there are worldwide shortages of particle-removing N95 respirators, (CDC 2020) there are various reasons as to why.

In a fast-breaking situation like COVID-19, mainstream media amplifies the cases from when they first appear. This leads to a surge of individuals bulk-ordering masks, making it incredibly difficult for anyone, including health officials, to find them during times of need.

It’s also no surprise that most public health departments are underfunded; therefore, health systems don’t keep masks in reserve for pandemics. Additionally, federal protocol calls for N95s to be thrown out after a single-use and they have a limited shelf life of 5-6 years. Because of this, medical personnel are prioritized to receive N95s over the common civilian. Hence if you try and order N95s online during a surge, they’re either extremely expensive or take months to deliver.

Against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, using a tightly fitted surgical mask as a substitute is a viable option to consider. Similar to the swine flu pandemic, the CDC has recommended wearing N95s instead of surgical masks for optimal prevention of contracting the coronavirus. This is because the virus is transmittable via respiratory droplets, which are produced when a person coughs or sneezes. The N95s filter out up to 95% of airborne particles, including respiratory droplets, whereas surgical masks are not considered to have respiratory protection.

However, a recent study funded by the CDC shows that there is no statistical significant difference in the effectiveness of viral prevention between the protective masks because most people who aren’t health professionals wear the N95s incorrectly. N95s require a seal check every time the respirator is donned (put on). When N95s are fitted, there is minimal leakage around the respirator when the user inhales. Unfortunately, many people who have the masks aren’t wearing them correctly due to lack of knowledge, giving way to leakages, making the prevention process all the more frustrating.

Proper education on how to further prevent transmission of a disease is critical, especially during times of an outbreak. The CDC recommends these principle steps to help prevent COVID-19 transmission:

  • If a person is feeling sick, they need to stay home 
  • Older adults and those with prior medical conditions should not travel
  • Stay 6ft away from anyone who looks sick
  • Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds
  • Use hand sanitizer that has more than 60% alcohol

If you follow the steps above, you should have peace of mind that you’re doing all that you can to prevent contracting and spreading the coronavirus.

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