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What you need to know about respirator masks and their effectiveness against coronavirus

Faithful wear surgical masks as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis outside the Santa Sabina Basilica on the occasion of the Ash Wednesday Mass opening Lent, the forty-day period of abstinence and deprivation for Christians before Holy Week and Easter, in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Pope Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday ritual kicking off the Catholic Church's Lenten season in traditional fashion, while other Masses in northern Italy were canceled over fears of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Faithful wear surgical masks as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis outside the Santa Sabina Basilica on the occasion of the Ash Wednesday Mass opening Lent, the forty-day period of abstinence and deprivation for Christians before Holy Week and Easter, in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Pope Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday ritual kicking off the Catholic Church's Lenten season in traditional fashion, while other Masses in northern Italy were canceled over fears of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention issued a warning of possible coronavirus outbreaks in the United States leading some to scramble through medical supplies stores and websites in search of respiratory masks to protect themselves.

Right now, the CDC is only recommending those ill with the virus and healthcare workers or people caring for them to wear respirator masks because transmission in the U.S. is low and there is no active transmission among communities.

The CDC also stressed that protective equipment is only one factor in protecting yourself and recommends the general public to follow preventative actions such as washing their hands thoroughly, covering their cough or sneeze with a tissue, avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth and avoiding sick people.

What is a respirator mask?

A respirator is a personal protective device that covers the nose and mouth to reduce the wearer’s risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles, according to the CDC.

What’s the most effective respirator mask?

The most effective respirator is the N95 as it filters out at least 95% of very small particles including bacteria and viruses, according to the CDC.

Can I wear a surgical mask instead?

Most surgical masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air. They are loose-fitting and provide only barrier protection against droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily fluids and large respiratory particles, according to the CDC.

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How often should respirator masks be switched out?

The CDC recommends healthcare workers to discard them after each patient encounter.

Respirator masks and facial hair

There are certain facial hair styles that may interfere with the effectiveness in protection against the coronavirus while wearing respirators. To learn which are OK and which must be shaved, click here.

Other effective respirator masks

Other respirator masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health include N99, N100, P95, P99, P100, R95, R99 and R100, according to the CDC.

Alternatives to respirators masks

The CDC recommends health care professionals to use elastomeric half-masks, full facepiece air purifying respirators and powered air purifying respirators when feasible.


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