The standard personal protective equipment or PPE used in order to avoid contracting highly contagious infections including COVID-19 typically contains specialized masks such as the N95. However, higher demands for PPEs have led to a shortage of N95 masks for health care workers.
On this issue, federal health authorities have responded by suggesting surgical masks to be worn as an alternative to the specialized masks as they evidently provide a certain level of protection.
In addition, for people who do not work in health care, fabric or homemade masks are recommended so that other masks can be used by those who are at a bigger risk of contracting the novel coronavirus while coming into contact with patients.
On the other hand, scientific evidence on the use of surgical masks as a substitute for specialized masks shows that this may not help in decreasing the chances of exposure to the virus.
According to the guidelines from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, lower grade surgical masks are acceptable in hospital settings unless the health care worker is performing specific procedures such as intubation.
The cases COVID-19 in health care workers make up eleven percent of all of the cases around the world. This highlights how surgical masks may not be enough and play a part in increasing the risk of exposure.
The health and safety expert for states and federal government, Jonathan Rosen, says “There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s one of the reasons that so many health care workers are getting sick and many are dying,”
A House Education and Labor Committee staffer briefed by the CDC shows that over twenty thousand health care workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and over seventy have died as a result of the infection.
In fact, the CDC’s own advice on the acceptability of surgical masks is in contrast with previous advice from the health authority which occurs on another one of its webpages.
The advice specifically says that the use of surgical masks in hospital settings does “NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and is not considered respiratory protection.”
The past chair of the occupational health and safety section of the American Public Health Association and the current executive director of the International Safety Center, Amber Mitchell explains how this simply means that a lower grade surgical masks cannot qualify as a part of the personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Surgical masks passed as a part of PPE when the research on the transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses was limited and it was not known that the virus can also transmit via tiny particles as well as stay in the air for up to sixteen hours.
According to the specialized mask makers, 3M Corp, only a well-fitted N95 mask can block minuscule particles by ninety-five percent. A surgical mask is only designed for keeping away large droplets during surgical procedures and cannot do so.
A study from 2013, whose findings appear in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, showed that seventeen percent of the workers contract a respiratory infection when wearing a common surgical mask.
Only seven percent of the health care workers who wore a specialized N95 mask, on the other hand, contract the virus. The findings of this study and many others show that surgical masks can play a role in the further spread of COVID-19.
However, the CDC’s guideline on using surgical masks as an alternative was only meant to address the shortage of N95 masks, according to the agency speaker, Martha Sharan.
Since the surgical masks are making no difference, health unions are increasingly requesting the federal government to address the shortage of masks as it not only puts health care workers at high risk but any other people who come into contact with them.