COVID-19 masks: Which mask is best for you?
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But instead of what pattern, logo or slogan you display, choose your mask based on its effectiveness against the deadly coronavirus in the environment you are in.
Guidelines on how to help you make that choice should be out by mid-spring, according to Jonathan Szalajda, deputy director at the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, which is part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Working closely with government agencies, industry stakeholders and ASTM International, an international technical standards organization, the standards will apply to filter efficiency, sizing and fit, cleaning and recommended period of use or reuse.
For now, here's a breakdown of respirators and masks based on current scientific knowledge, and what experts are saying on how to best use them.
Made from fibers woven with an electrical charge that can trap errant particles — like a sock that sticks to your pants in the dryer — studies have shown N95-type respirators are currently at the top of the line when it comes to filtering large and small particles. Masks in this category are also known as "filtering facepiece respirators" or "disposable respirators."
What would happen if every American wore an N95-type mask for four weeks in risky settings like being indoors?
"It would stop the epidemic," Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told CNN.N95 respirators come in many sizes to accommodate various face shapes. When fitted to the wearer's face and worn properly, N95-type masks can trap 95% of particles around 0.3 microns, studies have shown. SARS CoV-2 can be as small as 0.1 micron in diameter — that's about 4 millionths of an inch.
While it may seem that N95 filters would miss the tiny COVID-19 particles, that's not so. Most bits of virus exit the lungs encased inside larger respiratory droplets, typically much bigger than 0.3 microns.
Even those that become aerosolized are easily captured. Due to a natural phenomenon called Brownian motion, such minute particles don't travel in straight lines. Instead they bounce around in a zigzag fashion and are easily caught in the N95's electrostatic filter.
While some experts are calling for a nationwide rollout of N95 masks, such masks are currently reserved for health care professionals on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients. That's partly due to a shortage of such masks, which are designed to be worn once and discarded, but also due to the training needed to fit and wear the mask properly.
"In a health care setting, there's an advantage because there's a degree of sophisticated training to inform people how to properly wear respirators which doesn't exist in a public setting," NPPTL's Szalajda said.