What you really need to know about the N95 mask and others like it

Coronavirus
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CHICAGO — The demand for more masks has only increased over time. Healthcare workers on the front lines are in dire need of the best protection they can get as COVID-19 spreads.

At the University of Chicago Medicine, “universal masking” is its next step that was announced Thursday. As demand increases, supplies are slowly increasing — but are all the products making their way into the market the same?

Leo Friedman is the founder of iPromo. He’s a promotional products guy who recently switched from simply selling custom branded corporate gifts to now also importing gowns, gloves and yes, masks to the United States. He had to do so to save his business because all his products come from China.

As factories re-open in China, the N95 mask will start making its way to the United States. Friedman says he is flying over between 250,000 and 500,000 of them daily thanks to his existing relationships in China.

When the N95 equivalent comes from Europe, it’s called the FFP2 mask. All are considered acceptable respirators for our front line healthcare workers. They are ultrasonically welded, Medline Industries’ Dr. Rosie Lyles.

“We should be fine. We know from the standards here in the U.S., they are the equivalent,” Lyles said. 

The threat of coronavirus is not going to be held at bay by homemade masks.

“If you are sewing anything by punching a hole into the material, it is less protective for the individual wearing the mask itself,” Lyles said.

The respirator is such an important part of a healthcare workers’ equipment, at NorthShore University HealthSystem, Mike Fiore is in charge of outfitting healthcare workers with properly fitted N95s once a year. Every year, staff members take 10-15 minutes to perform a fit test.

“This is different than putting on a pair of glasses or smock or apron. This is fitted to you so we are making sure you are getting the level of effectiveness that we promise. That’s why it’s considered a respirator. and not just a mask,” said Mike Fiore, NorthShore University HealthSystem.

A key point is that people shouldn’t be wearing these types of masks, N95 or any of its cousins from across the pond, unless they are taking care of COVID-19 patients. He fears they create a false sense of security.

“N95s, remember these are a respirator. These you have to be fitted for. If someone is able to buy on the internet, and grab an N95 mask, unless you are fitted and go through this process, you cannot guarantee it is doing anything more for you than breathing normal air,” Fiore said.

The healthcare community cannot stress enough that while we will soon start seeing more masks make it into the marketplace, right now they should still be reserved only for healthcare workers.

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