Can the N95 / P2 masks be used to protect against the coronavirus?

On the 31st December 2019 the World Health Organization was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei province of China. This virus was a serious concern to WHO as it was a new virus and they did not know how it would affect people in terms of severity, contamination medium and spread rates. On the 7th of January Chinese authorities confirmed the new virus is a coronavirus, which is a family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS and MERS. Since then, China’s National Health Commission has deployed masks to healthcare workers responding to the outbreak, and millions of masks have been sent to residents of Wuhan, according to reports. But will these masks stop people from catching the virus?

We know the coronavirus is airborne, and that it can be transmitted between people. Researchers believe that the virus may have made the jump from animals to people via the inhalation of airborne particles in a seafood market that sold live wild animals. So it makes sense to cover your nose and mouth.

But what type of Masks are being used to protect against coronavirus?

There are essentially two main types of masks that are being used to protect against the coronavirus:-

  • Surgical face masks – The type Doctors use in surgery
  • N95 masks. The Australian equivalent rating to the US N95 is the P2 mask.

Surgical Masks Surgical masks are specifically designed to block liquid droplets, and might lower the chance of catching the virus from another person. However, these masks are designed to work well in operating theatres where there are additional stringent hygiene requirements. But these masks don’t offer full protection against airborne viruses. For a start, they don’t fully seal off the nose and mouth – particles can still get in. And very small particles can simply pass through the material of the mask. “They might help, but it’s not clear they give you total protection,” says Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

N95 / P2 Masks The United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) does recommend that healthcare providers wear N95 respirators (P2 respirators - Australian Equivalent), face masks that filter at least 95% of airborne particles, if they treat a patient infected with the novel coronavirus.

In the case of SARS, another type of coronavirus, a large amount of infections originated in hospitals among healthcare workers treating infected people, says infectious disease expert Dr. Charles Chiu. So now, doctors follow the same strict precautions and wear gowns, gloves, N95 / P2 respirators and goggles to reduce their likelihood of infection. N95 / P2 respirators offer more protection. They are designed to prevent 95 per cent of small particles from entering the nose and mouth area. But they only work if they fit properly, and generally aren’t suitable for children or people with facial hair. N95 / P2 respirators can also make it more challenging for a person to breathe, so could be dangerous for someone showing symptoms of infection of the new coronavirus, which include coughing and shortness of breath.

Guidelines for keeping your Workplace and School Safe

The University of Sydney has put out the below guidance for Staff and Students in order to prevent the spread of infection at the University by following the basic hygiene advice below to stay healthy:

  • Using soap or alcohol-based hand wash frequently and washing hands for at least 20 seconds each time;
  • Avoiding areas where there are people sneezing, covering their mouth or nose if sneezing or coughing with a flexed elbow and disposing of tissues immediately;
  • Avoiding contact with anyone who is unwell; and
  • Not attending study or work if they’re unwell.

If you have the Symptoms

If you are worried about your symptoms, and think you may have the virus, call for medical advice before visiting a hospital and potentially spreading the infection, suggests Robin Thompson at the University of Oxford. Read more: WHO – Information on the coronavirus as well as links to a poster series that can be printed out and placed in your workplace/School

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