COVID-19: A Guide to Protective Equipment and Measures

The rapid spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus and its declaration as a pandemic by the WHO has led to the widespread phenomenon of ‘panic-buying’ of protective equipment such as masks, sanitizers, un-prescribed medicines and things of daily use such as edibles, toilet paper and more. As the number of cases shot up by the minute, an increase in anxiety is natural. However, it is also important to not let this turn into panic which exacerbates the problem with artificial shortages and ineffective preventive measures. Let’s take a look at preventive masks in this context to understand which are effective and which not as well as when and who should be using them.

The different types of masks that could serve as a line of defense against the virus are as illustrated below:

A. Disposable Surgical Masks

These masks are intended to protect the user from substantially larger contaminants and bodily fluids like blood or cough droplets. Hence, if someone is infected or is suspected of being infected, he/she should wear the mask to avoid spreading the infection to healthy individuals through saliva or cough.

However, the utility of this mask for healthy individuals is highly suspect due to its comparatively larger pores.

This three-ply material of the mask is made up of a melt-blown polypropylene placed between non-woven fabric, which has better bacteria filtration and air permeability while remaining less slippery than a woven cloth.

If the mask is being used, the wearer must ensure a snug fit to the facial contours using the steel wire at the nose and proper fastening to the face to leave minimal gaps.

B. Disposable N95, N99, and N100 respirators

Respirators and face masks are different from each other in terms of filtering capacity, fitting and more. These respirators can usually filter out contaminants and a wide range of viruses and bacteria. Respirators seal tightly around the wearer’s nose and mouth and aim to leave absolutely no gaps.

The ‘N’ stands for ‘Not resistant to oil’ which means it can be used when there are no oil-based products in the air. The numbers after the N indicate the filtering capacity of the mask which can be up to 95%, 99% or 99.97% and more respectively. If one is in an environment where there are oil-based particles in the air they may resort to the use of masks with the letters ‘P’ (Oilproof) or ‘R’ (Oil-resistant) in their names with the same filtering efficiency options.

Infected individuals, caregivers, and doctors are advised to use these respirators, as they can help prevent the transference of the virus. These respirators are tested for fluid resistance, filtration efficiency (particulate and bacterial filtration efficiency), flammability and biocompatibility.

C. Reusable powered air-purifying respirators

These masks are not used commonly as they are more expensive. However, they provide protection to the eyes and filter out viruses, bacteria, vapors, and fumes. If caregivers and infected individuals have breathing problems in normal masks or have substantial facial hair that prevents other masks from sealing properly, these masks are useful. They may come with a powered air supply that helps make breathing easier. These are most recommended for doctors and nurses that handle multiple covid-19 patients day in and day out.

 These masks, especially the first two types are being whipped off the shelves and this is causing a major shortage of masks for healthcare units as civilians hoard them. It is recommended that healthy individuals do not use masks so that they are available to those who are infected or providing healthcare services which are most effective in preventing the spread of virus. The most common mode of transmission of the virus is through physical contact with body fluids like cough droplets, saliva, etc of an infected person and then the hand of the healthy person coming in contact with his/her eyes, nose or mouth which is not prevented by the use of these masks.

 Individuals wearing masks often take off the mask to scratch their face or out of a habit of touching their face. This renders the protection of the mask ineffective and proves as a waste of the mask as it cannot be used again. For healthy individuals measures such as the cleanliness of the hands, not touching the face and social distancing are far more effective.

  People often buy goods and services to alleviate emotions (‘retail therapy’) such as stress, anger, and panic. The panic created by the rapid spread of the virus pushes people to hoard supplies in anticipation of shortages. However, giving into this pattern of consumption can actually lead to an increase in the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask can give an otherwise healthy individual a sense of complacency and they may not exercise enough caution and may get infected as a result while hoarding by civilians may leave doctors and nurses exposed to the virus. 

Vrinda Chandra

 My name is Vrinda Chandra. I’m from Mumbai, Maharashtra. I’ve just finished my ISC board exams while studying at the Cathedral and John Connon School. My field of study is finance and mathematics however I love reading and learning about technology, scientific theories, psychology, art, and many other subjects. 

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