3M N95 particulate filtering face mask are seen at a store. (Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty … [+]
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Put down the mask, and step away. Unless you are a health care professional or someone like a hockey goalie or Batman, you do not need to buy a mask. And if you are Batman or a hockey goalie, a N95 respirator mask isn’t going to help you keep pucks from your face or The Joker from your identity.
The COVID-19 coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) outbreak has been good for face mask manufacturers and sellers. According to Dee-Ann Durbin, Anne D’Innocenzio, and Joseph Pisani writing for the Associate Press, face mask sales have been surging around the world. Demand has been so high that many businesses have sold out of such items or are limiting the number that customers can buy. Yes, in this way, face masks have become like Baby Yoda toys.
Don’t expect mask sellers to tell you that you don’t need masks. After all, how many businesses will say, “you don’t really need my product, don’t buy my product, and don’t give me money.” Quite the contrary. As Megan Cerullo indicated for CBS News, some mask sellers have used this as an opportunity to raise the prices of masks.
Keep in mind that buying most face masks out there can be like purchasing a scented trash bag: a huge waste of money. Many masks out there are going to do diddly squat for you. By the way, “diddly squat” is a technical term for “nothing” or “nadda.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has maintained that only should only wear a mask if you yourself are infected with the new coronavirus or if you are taking care of someone who may be infected. Otherwise, you are just depleting supplies for those people who may actually need such masks such as health care professionals. The current mask buying frenzy prompted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, to tweet the following this morning:
You know it’s serious when the Surgeon General has to say “seriously people.”
That means don’t get swayed by selfies like the following one on Instagram from film star Kate Hudson:
Yeah, a standard surgical mask like the one that she is wearing ain’t going to keep much out except maybe keeping people from recognizing that she is Kate Hudson. Viruses are small enough to get through the holes in such a mask. At most, such a mask may make it harder for you to touch your nose and mouth, a common way of infecting yourself with viruses, as I described previously for Forbes. Thus, from a protecting-you-against-viruses standpoint, wearing a surgical mask would have about the same effect as covering your face with pastrami but without the obvious advantages of pastrami.
In fact, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals typically wear such masks to protect you from them. Such masks can make it harder for stuff in their mouths and noses to reach you, which can be especially important during surgery or some other procedure. After all, have you seen how much spit can fly out of people’s mouths when they talk? So, maybe you should thank Hudson for keeping her spit away from you.
Most masks out there are not like P2/N95 respirators. N95 means that it can filter out 95% of airborne particles. Filtering out 95% is probably good enough to keep the teeny-weeny new coronaviruses away from your mouth and nose, but nothing in life is 100%, except maybe avocados bringing happiness.
So, should you be like actress Gwyneth Paltrow then in the following Instagram post and wear what appears to be a N95-equivalent mask on a plane or out in public:
Again, unless you yourself are infected with the new coronavirus or are taking care of someone who is infected, wearing an N95 mask is not necessary. The CDC did not say wear such a mask if may interact with strangers or are a celebrity. It is not clear how much protection such masks will offer you over longer periods of time. Health professionals typically use N95 respirators for only fairly short durations, such as when they enter an infected patient’s room, because wearing the masks can make it more difficult to breathe. They also will replace their respirators with new ones frequently, since the masks can degrade over time, especially when they get wet or soiled. Plus, the masks still leave your eyes exposed unless you wear airtight goggles at the same time. And a pair of goggles plus mask can make you look very much like a gigantic insect.
Is there any immediate harm to wearing a N95 mask then? Probably not, unless you are on a date or a job interview. The trouble is they do cost money, which can be an issue if you are not Gwyneth Paltrow. So you may be spending money when other approaches such as washing your hands frequently and thoroughly and not touching your face with unwashed hands may be a lot more effective and cost-effective.
Moreover, health professionals need such masks to take care of all kinds of patients. Not just those with the new coronavirus but also those infected with other pathogens like Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB). If doctors and nurses don’t have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), they can end up catching and spreading all sorts of microbes. And no one wants your MTB or anyone’s MTB. Or any other pathogen for that matter.
During an infectious disease outbreak or epidemic or what could become a pandemic, don’t let fears mask reality and what is important. Whether you like it or not, everyone is connected with each other. Therefore, the key to stopping or at least reducing the impact of a virus is to understand who needs to be protected first: health care professionals. If you deplete PPE by buying all of it up when doing so is not necessary, you may be leaving health care professionals exposed. That means the people who are supposed to take of you may end up carrying viruses, which is great for the viruses but certainly not for you.