Time to Upgrade Your Mask
If you have been a patient at the hospital lately—to get blood drawn, get emergency care, or attend an appointment—and you came in wearing a cloth mask, you would have had a staff member give you one of our paper-like surgical masks and ask you to wear it instead. A few patients have taken a moment to wonder why. The reason for this is the paper surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks, especially against the omicron variant of COVID-19.
How are they more effective, you wonder? The paper surgical masks are made with three layers, including melt-blown polypropylene, which catches smaller aerosolized particles. Also, people have been wearing their cloth masks for a few years now. The elastic is stretched. There might be small holes in the fabric. When a mask is in poor condition, its effectiveness takes a hit. Rather than conduct mask inspections, it’s easier and better to pass out surgical masks to all.
Surgical masks often fit better than cloth masks right from the start. The wire at the nose allows you to close the gaps between the mask and your face much better than you can with a standard cloth mask. The elastic ear loops draw the paper-like fabric close under your chin and decreases the space between the mask and your cheeks. Omicron is less likely to creep into the very narrow gaps of a surgical mask compared with the much larger gaps of most cloth masks.
Surgical masks are more available now than ever. The shortage of critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) hospitals nationwide experienced early in the pandemic has long since passed. It is far easier to get surgical masks than it has been in the past. We have plenty for our own staff and can afford to share them with patients.
You might be wondering, “should I buy surgical masks and wear them everywhere?” The first best thing to do would be to get fully vaccinated and boosted. Without vaccination, even a great mask might leave you vulnerable to a serious case of COVID. Then, weigh the risks of where you are going. If you are popping into a convenience store, a cloth mask could be good enough. If you are going to spend 30 – 40 minutes at the grocery store, I recommend a surgical mask.
You might want an even more intense mask, if you are traveling by air or in some situation where distancing is difficult to maintain. In that case, try an N95, KN95, or KF95. These masks can be reused, as long as they have not been wet with bodily fluids and they are in good repair. By comparison, surgical masks are designed to be used just once. A cloth mask, if that’s all you happen to have on hand, is better than no mask.
You might notice that our staff here at SVMC have upgraded their masks too. Where they once used a surgical mask, they are now using a professionally fit-tested N95 mask. They might also be wearing goggles or a shield. If they are working with COVID-positive patients, they may wear a CAPR (Controlled Air-Purifying Respirator). It looks like a solid bike helmet with shield attached.
The gear that we are wearing and the gear we are asking you to wear is part of our overall safety plan. It will help ensure that no one—staff, patients, or you—contracts COVID while receiving care with us.
Donna Barron, RN, is an infection preventionist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, in Bennington.