Surgical Masks, KN95 Respirators, and Coronavirus. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The coronavirus is coming. Federal officials confirmed this week that SARS-CoV-2’s stateside spread is no longer a question of “if” but of “when.” Take a deep breath: There are a few things you can do to prepare. First, wash your hands often. Second, if you haven’t already, get a flu shot. Third, to prepare for a scenario in which a worst-case outbreak occurs, refresh your supply of food, medicines, and essential household supplies (which is also a smart way to prepare for any potential emergency).

One thing you almost certainly do not need to do right now: Buy a face mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week announced that face masks are of limited help to protect most healthy people from respiratory illnesses like the coronavirus disease COVID-19. Unless you are sick and trying to prevent spreading germs to others, you do not need a surgical mask. Unless you are a health-care worker or taking care of someone who is sick, you do not need an N95 respirator. And that’s good news, since they’re pretty much not available. Mask hoarding is in full swing, leaving health-care workers without needed protection.

Surgical masks do not protect against viruses. At best, these cloth or latex barriers may help prevent the spread of germs (via coughs or sneezes) when worn by folks who are ill. A properly fitted N95 respirator mask, on the other hand, is far more likely to protect against a virus, as it can filter particulates as small as 0.3 micron. An N95 mask can filter properly only when it has created an airtight seal around your mouth and nose. Health-care workers who may be exposed to pathogens, for example, are required to go through annual N95 fit testing to ensure they are wearing the masks correctly. If you have N95 masks at home and you’d prefer to wear one in public, doing so won’t hurt. But according to the CDC, they’re unnecessary.

The ubiquity of these masks in news photos or on public transit may convince you that you need one. Wirecutter readers have expressed frustration that the picks in our guide to the best respirator masks are currently unavailable on Amazon and at other retailers. A spokesperson for 3M, which makes our respirator picks, confirmed in an email that the company is ramping up production at its plants around the world—including in the US, Asia, Europe, and Latin America—due to the high demand. A representative of Honeywell, which also makes N95 respirators, noted the same.