N95 Masks as Effective Respirators
So, how come these N95 masks are so effective and allow us to keep our hospitals open?
The reason is because they block very small particles, (we are talking .3 microns, which is very, very small). Since Coronavirus is also microscopically tiny, N95s are able to keep them out because they are designed to block these kinds of particles. Also, it is proven that Coronavirus can pass from person to person in tiny droplets called aerosols that waft through the air. N95s protect the wearer because they don’t let aerosols pass through the material itself and because they form a seal around the wearer so no air can make its way in from the sides. Basically, N95s keep the virus from entering your lungs.
By the way, N95s have been around for around fifty years, keeping viruses and very small debris from being inhaled. Their safety has been proven.
For example, N95 masks have been used to protect people from contracting tuberculosis, which is another disease that is transmitted through breathing near someone who is infected. In fact, 1.5 million people die from tuberculosis each year. It’s very contagious, and you can infect yourself by simply breathing it in.
For a more scientific discussion of aerosol transmission, viruses, bacteria, and how the N95 mask keeps you safe, here is a link to start with. It is from BioMed Central, the publisher of hundreds of scientific journals.
So, until we have vaccines that are effective and safe, we could wear N95 masks and open back up.
On a side note, many N95 masks that you can find online may say seem like legitimate N95s, but are not verified by the CDC, which means that they do not have a filtration that is effective against the virus. Before purchasing any N95s, it is important to read the small text on the mask and verify that it is in fact a reliable brand. Here is one way to verify N95 masks.
N95 Masks Versus Cloth Masks
Let’s compare N95s to cloth masks.
When N95 masks are worn correctly, they provide virtually perfect protection for you and those around you because the virus is unable to pass through them either way. Some N95s have an exhaust valve which allows air to escape the mask but not come back in. If you tape closed the exhaust valve that's on some of the N95 masks, you also protect anyone around from catching the virus you might be breathing out. That’s how can doctors work in very close quarters with patients sick with the virus, day in and day out, and for the most part, avoid catching it.
On the other hand, cloth masks do not work perfectly in close quarter situations because they are not designed to keep out tiny particles (like the virus). Cloth masks do a great job of stopping wet sprays from coughs and sneezes that can have higher concentrations of the virus, but the viruses that are still contained in each breath are free to pass through the cloth, in and out. Plus, they are not equipped with a proper seal so the aerosolized virus can easily pass around the sides. Many cloth masks are also not worn properly and if they are not completely air-tight, you are breathing in unfiltered air around you with the potential of viral load being expelled from the sides of the mask. Since aerosolized virus is suspended in the air, a lot of that air will take the easiest way in which (if the mask is not sealed,) is through the side of the mask.
Although the science is clear, the message from our government leaders has not always been so. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of the most well known American doctors. Even Dr. Fauci is not clear about the effectiveness of an N95 mask versus a normal cloth mask. As recently as July 2020, Dr. Fauci was interviewed about the effectiveness of different masks. When asked how effective cloth masks are, Dr. Fauci admits there’s not really any definitive science about their effectiveness.
Interestingly, when pressed in these interviews he adds that the N95 medical respirator masks along with the cloth masks have a "combined" 80% effectiveness level. The inflated 80% effectiveness claim he is citing comes from a study that includes N95 masks, which provide virtually perfect protection for our doctors, along with any simple cloth masks used.
By grouping N95 Respirators together with cloth masks and then quoting their effectiveness, it might be like asking someone about the dangers of hand guns, and they respond that, well if you include handguns together with other weapons, they only kill way less than 0.1% of the time. That's including "other weapons" such as boxing gloves, water balloons, rolling pins, rubber darts, all together, and then quoting a statistic.
I know Dr. Fauci is probably trying to do the right thing by focusing on vaccines instead of calling for N95 factories. He is probably trying to advocate for people to somewhat protect themselves with cloth masks while we wait for a vaccine. But as I will explain later a vaccine will not mean immediate safety for most people.
Below is the excerpt of the MarketWatch interview of Dr. Fauci on July 30th, 2020 where he answers the question of how effective it is for everyone to wear masks. His uncertainty is especially clear in his last line.
“Dr. Fauci, do you have any estimate on how much less likely people are to transmit Coronavirus if they're wearing a mask: 50%? 99%? Or …?”
“We don't know exactly. There have been a number of meta analyses. One published in the Lancet on June 1 said masks and respirators reduced the risk of infection by anywhere from 78% to 85%. Your guess is as good as any.”
Hopefully, a vaccine will come out in the next few years and most people will get vaccinated. But, even if a vaccine comes out tomorrow, it almost certainly will not be able to protect everyone. The vaccine for the common flu, which is a similar disease to Coronavirus in many regards, has only a 40% to 60% rate of protecting someone completely (source). So even with a vaccine for Coronavirus, there will still be risk in going to school, the market, and anywhere else indoors. With the health of any older adult on the line, N95 masks will be a necessity in the future, especially as we plan to reopen schools, work, and society as a whole.