You probably already have everything you need at home.
As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, hospitals are struggling to keep fully functional while running through their limited supplies of face masks, gowns, and other protective equipment.
“No one before would have thought of fashion designers or anybody helping with DIY masks,” says Katie Kozel, a medical supply chain consultant in Colorado. “But no one before would have thought of trying to use rain ponchos as isolation gowns either, which we’re seeing happen now.”
Tutorials for DIY masks have proliferated across social media and the internet as news of the dire conditions in hospitals across the country hit the news, and people want to pitch in. But the value of such a mask may not lie so much in helping medical professionals, but in helping to protect yourself and the people around you.
N95 respirators are stiff masks with a filter that blocks 95 percent of particles measuring 0.3 microns in size, and are fit-tested to each healthcare worker to ensure they create a sealed barrier. Like most personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks are meant to be discarded after each use. But as a result of the shortage, the CDC has recommended healthcare workers store their used N95 masks in paper bags between uses, which raises the risk of disease transmission between healthcare workers and patients.
In contrast, surgical masks are loose-fitting coverings made of pleated melt-blown fabric: a fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers that allows the wearer to breathe while blocking tiny particles that could carry the virus. However, they don’t fit as tightly as N95 respirators, so they don’t provide the same protection against airborne coronavirus particles (which may persist in the air for up to three hours).
Surgical masks aren’t meant to shield the wearer from infection, but to protect others by corralling any infectious droplets that may come out of your mouth or nose—whether you’re symptomatic or not. That’s why authorities have insisted only people presenting symptoms or suspected of having COVID-19 should wear them.
However, healthcare professionals now have no choice but to wear surgical masks around COVID-19-infected patients, donning the safer, scarcer N95 respirators only when performing risky procedures like intubation. And even surgical masks are running low.