The recent Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has created a lot of changes to how daily lives are lived and medical personnel perform their jobs. The shortage of N95 respirators has happened before (SARS, MERS, etc.), just not on this scale. The CDC does not recommend that the general public wears N95 respirators as protection from COVID-19 or other respiratory diseases: the best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure, and respirators are invaluable to healthcare workers that need the added protection. Unfortunately, many workers are reusing theirs on the grounds that some protection is better than nothing. Is that the safest and most effective course of action, though? These masks were designed to be disposed of after they’re used, so it’s worth asking in the face of a disease outbreak: Are N95 masks reusable?
FDA Guidelines for Respirator Masks
The US Food and Drug Administration recommends that N95 respirators and disposable masks aren’t shared or reused. Both surgical face masks and N95 respirators are designed to block large particles from reaching the mouth. Surgical type face masks don’t filter or block very small particles in the air, nor do they seal particularly well around the face to provide complete protection. N95 respirators are designed to provide a better seal around the face and built especially to filter smaller particles—the 95 in the name comes from how, in testing, the respirator blocks 95% of 0.3 micron-sized test particles.
Neither masks nor respirators are intended to be used more than once. If they become damaged or soiled the wearer risks getting exposed to bacteria and viruses. In an ideal scenario, they should be removed and properly disposed of with careful hand-washing afterward.
CDC Guidelines for Extended Use and Limited Reuse
Unfortunately, the best-case scenario isn’t always the one we have to work with. In the midst of a healthcare crisis like the one we’re experiencing right now, sometimes tough decisions need to be made: in the case of disposable masks, that might mean choosing which guidelines are more important to follow in any given case. The CDC does have some guidance for healthcare workers who need to wear disposable masks for a long time or reuse them, which isn’t common in non-emergency situations.
Extended use is the recommended course of action for handling respiratory pathogen outbreaks. Healthcare personnel wear the same N95 respirator for several patients without removing it as long as those patients are infected with the same pathogen and placed together in a dedicated area. As long as the mask continues to fit securely, they can be worn for a maximum of eight hours depending on environmental conditions. It’s time to change a mask when it becomes difficult to breathe comfortably.