N95 Masks and the Rise of New COVID-19 Variants

Is it time to level-up and buy a N95 mask?

With Irfan Hafiz MD

N95 mask on runner

After a long hard year of dealing with COVID-19, most people are, quite frankly, sick of it. And who could blame them? With vaccines being distributed more and more widely, and numbers on a downswing, it can be easy to let your guard down.

But even as we approach the finish line, it is important to remember that we aren’t there yet. In fact, officials warn that we might be in store for a 4th wave of COVID-19 infections. More disconcerting? New variants of the virus keep emerging, some of which doctors don’t yet fully understand.

Almost all medical professionals agree that wearing a mask and social distancing are still two of your best bets in helping to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But when it comes to what kind of mask, that is when things get tricky.

Up until recently, the medical community agreed that N95 masks should be saved for health care providers and that surgical or reusable cotton masks were adequate for most Americans everyday use.

Then a tweet by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Friedan threw a wrench in the works. On January 26th he wrote, “N95 masks are the most protective masks, followed by three-ply surgical masks, then fabric masks. A fabric mask is a lot better than no mask, but we may need to step up our mask game if contagious Covid variants start to spread widely.”

And now N95 masks are popping up online and at retail stores. Is a cloth mask still your best choice or should you consider getting a N95 mask? Is it ethical for an average American to purchase one of these masks? Or is it going to hurt health care workers and other front-line workers? And what about KN95 masks from China?

N95 masks, surgical masks, repirator masks, and fabric masks – which are right to wear now?

If you are considering buying a 95-level mask, here is some information you will want to keep in mind.

  • Across the board, 95-level masks are known as the gold-standard of virus protection.
  • The most common in the United States is the N95 mask, which is made using several layers of synthetic material with a band around the back to keep the respirator firmly over the face. These masks are similar to surgical masks in that they are only effective for a single use.
  • The number 95 refers to the fact that after vigorous testing by the federal government the mask has been proven to filter out 95% of all very small particles (.3 micron, to be exact), which includes particles carrying the COVID-19 virus.
  • Each N95 has been tested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is a part of the CDC.
  • As for the N, that stands for “not resistant to oil,” which is why you will sometimes see a R95 mask, which is resistant to oil. R95 masks are used in manufacturing workplaces and will not be common on the marketplace.

One of the most important things to keep in mind with a N95 respirator is the fit. If your mask does not fit perfectly snug around your entire mouth and chin area, it is not properly protecting you.

When medical professionals receive their N95 respirators at hospitals, they are put through a thorough fit test, which is difficult for the individual consumer to accomplish.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, infectious disease specialist and Chief Medical Officer at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, also warns that when worn correctly N95 masks, while effective, aren’t exactly comfortable:

“An N95 mask does need fit testing to work as it is intended. When an N95 is worn correctly, it is hard to walk and talk in. If you are comfortable in an N95, then you probably aren’t wearing it correctly.”

As of February, 3M, a major US producer of N95 respirators, acknowledged that they have still been struggling to keep up with the demand for their masks.

This fact may be surprising to some, but as the N95 masks are all single use, there has been a constant flow of demand for over a year from hospitals and medical facilities all over the country.

The good news is that most supply-chain issues have been worked out, and the situation is much better than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. And with the rise of private companies companies getting into the game, there should be enough masks to go around, if not now, then in the very near future.

What about KN95 masks?

You might have also started hearing about KN95 masks. KN95s are the respirators used by Chinese medical workers. The main difference between the two is the way the straps work, but besides that, it’s just about where the mask received its certification.

All authentic certified KN95s have been tested by the Chinese government. The CDC has even approved KN95s for emergency use. Chinese companies can also apply for FDA-certification, which can add an additional peace of mind.

In fact, the FDA has published a list of approved KN95 masks, which can take some of the guesswork out of the buying process.

But buying medical-grade masks online from private companies is not without risks. Even if you have done your due diligence and found an FDA approved KN95 mask, that does not mean you can just search and buy the cheapest version on Amazon.

In fact, the online retail giant has made headlines recently, since it’s been flooded with counterfeit respirators. Just because a product is labeled a N95 mask, does not mean it is the real deal. A study from September 2020, showed that up to 70% of N95 masks made in China did not meet minimum standards.

When purchasing online, read all descriptions carefully. Avoid anything with typos or special characters replacing vowels, which can be used to avoid Amazon’s detection system. Anything with decorative elements or that advertise being safe for children’s use are not authentic.

Avoiding retailers like Amazon and eBay all together and going straight to the manufacturers is your best bet for avoiding a scam.

What does the CDC recommend?

As Dr. Hafiz points out, “The CDC hasn’t yet changed its guidelines about N95 respirators, and as of today they still recommend that N95 masks are conserved for employees in health care settings.”

However, if you are able to find an FDA-certified KN95 mask from a reliable source that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, it would definitely be a more powerful respirator. But remember that wearing a 95-level mask can be uncomfortable. So if you end up taking off you KN95 mask more while in public, it is not going to be as effective.

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