The coronavirus mask is something that no one wants to have to wear. A single death from a virus is tragic. A virus that has a reported death rate of 2%–roughly the same mortality rate as the 1918 flu pandemic that killed between 40 and 100 million people–is something to take seriously. It may be somewhat true that media stories might hype up the news for eyeballs and ratings. But when Japan closes all of its schools for two weeks and the U.S. Center for Disease Control tells businesses and individuals to start preparing for possible disruptions, we are dealing with more than hype. (The CDC has a disaster preparedness checklist here.)
I am going to join government officials in in urging people not to hoard masks. Having such masks sit on a dusty shelf waiting for a quarantine that may never come only keeps health care workers and patients who need them the most from having them. Just today, the US Surgeon General told the public to stop buying the masks for that reason.
And it’s critical to understand which types of masks work, how they work, and why. And as I do so, let me remind you once again of my disclaimer.
The earloop surgical masks most often seen in hospitals and clincs are arguably the least effective coronavirus masks, even though these are the ones most often seen. These masks are effective at keeping the wearer from spreading their germs if they are sick. They are good for capturing water droplets, which often carry viruses. But the ability to catch water droplets also makes them become very good breeding grounds for viruses. This means that after a couple of hours, these masks risk making the wearer more susceptible to viruses.
This is why surgical-style earloop masks are often called “procedure masks.” When medical personnel use these to protect themselves, they are designed to be worn for only a few minutes, or maybe up to a couple of hours. Furthermore, they don’t often seal well, and gaps between the mask and the face mean that germs can bypass the mask.
One group of coronavirus masks that have often been recommended are the N95 masks. They were also talked about a lot with the H1N1 pandemic. There is a run on those masks, too. They do seal well and filter better. But I would save the medical ones for the healthcare workers that clearly need it the most. Honestly, companies probably won’t ship these masks to you anyway.
You can try the mask resource links that I have on this website. These aren’t usually companies that sell to medical providers. Most of them are designed for pollution, which would certainly filter viruses better than the paper masks, but still aren’t perfect. Really, nothing’s perfect–a mask can only reduce your exposure, not eliminate it. I am sure many of them are overwhelmed with unexpected business as well.
I have spoken about my desire to find masks that seal better and a recent post described a few that fit the bill. These are reusable masks whose facepieces are very washable, where the filters don’t touch the face, and the filters are replaceable. Recently, I have been wearing the O2 Canada mask which I will write about in a future post.
I think what is most important in cases like these is that we as citizens need to think about the needs of our community as a whole more than just our individual needs and desires. Hoarding medical masks that you might never use, while medical personnel and others who really need them go without, really won’t help you or anyone else. Indeed, it will make things worse for your community as a whole–and ultimately yourself.