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Get the Most Value from Respiratory Protection During the Pandemic

September 15, 2020 Dr. Brian Buck

School worker wearing respiratory protection

Educational entities everywhere are working to protect staff and students during the coronavirus pandemic. Most, if not all, have made respiratory protection integral to their plans. To help fill gaps, the Texas Education Agency recently delivered 50 million disposable masks to districts across the state. If you want to get the most value out of respiratory protection, collectively referred to as masks in this article, train your staff and students to respect its limitations and use it correctly.

Prioritize the basics

COVID-19 carriers who are asymptomatic, which means they do not have symptoms, account for an estimated 44 percent of transmissions. Asymptomatic transmission underscores the importance of making masks part of a comprehensive mitigation plan that includes these basic measures:

  1. Wash your hands regularly with soap for at least 20 seconds. If that is not possible, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  2. Keep a minimum six feet of distance between yourself and others. If social distancing is not possible, masks are critical.
  3. Wear a mask. With limited exceptions, that applies to anyone who is over the age of two and in public settings, outside the home, and at work. Do not buy into the myth that masks weaken the body’s ability to fight illness. In fact, they serve as an extra layer of protection for the immune system.
  4. Stay home if you are ill or if you have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Understand how masks work

When an infected person talks, coughs, sneezes, or sings, they expel respiratory droplets. Because the droplets are heavy, they travel a short distance before landing on a surface or in someone else’s mouth or nose. Masks work by containing respiratory droplets and protecting those around you. A growing body of scientific evidence makes a strong case for wearing a mask.

In Missouri, a hair salon’s mask policy likely prevented two stylists from passing COVID-19 to approximately 140 clients. Early in the pandemic, a commercial flight in China carried 15 passengers who had suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. All passengers wore masks. The only one who caught the virus had briefly loosened his mask mid-flight.

Use N95 respirators sparingly

An N95 respirator is a disposable mask that forms a tight seal on the face. Because they filter large and small particles, N95s offer more protection than looser-fitting dust masks and surgical masks. Before using an N95 mask, you must get a medical evaluation, a fit test, and training. Because the health care community faces a critical shortage of N95 masks, you should avoid using one unless you are a school nurse, you are sick or caring for someone who has COVID-19, or you have a valid on-the-job need.

Be careful with alternatives

The shortage of N95 masks has created a market for alternatives. Scientists and health experts researching the effectiveness of masks have learned that some are less effective than others at reducing the virus’ spread:

  • If you use a KN95 mask, choose the medical-grade version for the best protection. The cheaper, industrial-grade model has shown varying effectiveness during tests. Getting a good seal between the mask and the user’s face can also be difficult.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently advised against the use of masks that have one-way valves or vents, which allow an infected person to expel respiratory droplets.
  • Similarly, avoid bandanas and neck gaiters, both of which can contribute to the virus’ spread. The CDC also advises against using face shields as a substitute for face coverings when possible.

Consider cloth face coverings

Not all N95 respirator alternatives have shortcomings. The CDC cites washable, reusable cloth face coverings as a powerful tool for harnessing COVID-19. Coverings should be made from at least two layers of cotton fabric. They should also fit well over the nose and mouth, with no gaps.

Promote mask hygiene

Let’s bring our guide full-circle and consider the basics once more. Hygiene is also important when it comes to putting on, wearing, removing, and storing masks. Promote these tips among staff and students.

Putting the mask on:

  • Do not use a co-worker’s mask.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer immediately before touching the mask.
  • Secure the loops or ties behind your ears or head, without touching your face.

Removing, caring for the mask:

  • Remove the mask by releasing the ear loops or ties, without touching your face or the mask.
  • Wash your hands immediately.
  • Wash cloth masks thoroughly every day with soap and water or laundry detergent.
  • Store cloth masks in a clean, plastic, resealable bag.

Access free resources

The Fund’s online training vendor provides complimentary access to COVID-19 safety videos, including a video that teaches proper cloth mask use. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides a poster, available in 16 languages, that shows how to wear a respirator. For general information about respirators, visit the CDC website. Fund members who have questions about masks, COVID-19, and other safety issues can contact your risk solutions consultant.

Dr. Brian Buck serves as TASB Medical Director in the Workers’ Compensation division, providing medical expertise to support claims decisions.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Tagged: coronavirus, COVID-19, "workplace safety"