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N95 masks: What you need to know today about the gold standard for pandemic protection

Global shortages of N95 respirators are resulting in innovative solutions.

Can an N95 mask protect against the coronavirus?

In these uncertain times, pharmacies, retailers and hospitals are struggling to keep up as demand soars for ventilators, hand sanitisers, test kits – and N95 masks. The more specialised mask, known as an N95 respirator, is said to be the gold standard for pandemic protection and more effective than surgical masks.

A type of personal protection equipment (PPE), the N95 respirator is thicker than a surgical mask and has been designed to achieve a very close facial fit in order to offer efficient filtration of airborne particles. When properly fitted, N95 respirators can filter more airborne particles than face masks.

What does the N95 stand for in N95 masks?

In fact, the designation N95 is a NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) classification, meaning the mask filters out at least 95 percent of very small airborne particles (0.3 microns), with the N standing for Not resistant to oil.  

N95 masks are regulated in the US by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIOSH and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Why is there an N95 mask shortage?

Mask shortages were experienced across the world as early in the pandemic as February due to enormous domestic demand in China. The WHO also attributed global PPE shortages to misinformation, panic buying and stockpiling

Now US hospitals are running out of N95 masks owing to disruption in supply chains. Wholesale N95 mask costs have reportedly quintupled and airfreight charges have tripled. 

The general public are meanwhile advised not to wear a N95 mask. The US Surgeon General asked the public to stop buying masks explaining that it puts healthcare providers and communities at risk if they were unable to acquire them. Similarly in the UAE, the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) urged people not to wear a N95 mask unless they are a medical professional treating coronavirus patients.

The supply shortages are leading to healthcare workers reusing their N95 mask, from the US to Germany and Japan, leaving them exposed and in danger.

How long is an N95 mask good for?

According to NIOSH pandemic planning guidance, there isn’t a way of determining the maximum possible number of safe reuses for an N95 respirator as a generic number to be applied in all cases. The CDC also states that in times of shortages, alternatives to N95s should be considered, including other classes of FFRs, elastomeric half-mask and full facepiece air purifying respirators, and powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) where feasible.

An alternative solution still is the deployment of technology that cleans and reuses N95 masks.

Research, development and lab management company Batelle received FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to decontaminate up to 80,000 respirator masks per system each day, using concentrated, vapour phase hydrogen peroxide (VPHP). The masks are exposed to the validated concentration level for 2.5 hours to decontaminate biological contaminates, including the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. 

 

What efforts are being made to get people masks?

N95 shortages have led to the White House ordering 500 million masks following complaints from providers, and corporate America is pitching in to help.

3M has doubled global production to 100 million N95 masks per month, Facebook has contributed 720,000 respiratory masks, Apple has donated 10 million masks and Salesforce delivered 9000 masks.

China’s Alibaba founder Jack Ma has also donated two million masks.

Is there a way of making a DIY N95 mask?

Individuals worldwide are meanwhile manufacturing respirators in response to the global N95 shortage using 3D printing and other techniques.

In the US, for example, a Virginia-based mother’s tweet went viral after her son used a 3D printer to make face mask for his high-risk uncle and others, and a 15 year old is sewing home-made face masks for North Caroline hospitals running out of high-grade N95 respirator masks.

In Italy, Issinova used a 3D printer adapter to convert a snorkeling mask into a non-invasive ventilator for COVID-19 patients. The 3D printed mask was patented it to ensure it was free and CAD drawings were uploaded for all to use.

 

The FDA however cautions in its guidance on 3D printing of medical devices, accessories, components, that while a 3D printed PPE may provide a physical barrier, it is unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration protection as FDA-cleared N95 respirators.

3D Systems, a business co-founded by the inventor of 3D printing, also states that it does not recommend 3D printing of N95 compliant surgical masks and respirators without proper testing

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