What is the efficacy of standard face masks compared to respirator masks in preventing COVID-19?
COVID-19 is contracted via direct contact, droplets in the air caused by a person with infection who sneezed, airborne particles from intubation, and the fecal-oral transmission.
The standard face mask or surgical mask is a fluid-resistant material designed to prevent splashes of liquid and droplets from coming in contact with the wearer's mouth and nose. These single-use masks are used in hospitals where COVID-19 droplets are rampant and by civilians whenever they go out of their house.
The respirator mask is designed to protect the wearer from small airborne particles in aerosol-generating procedures. They fit firmly and work well with eye protection. There are three types of respirator mask: FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3. FFP3 offers the highest level of protection among all types of respirators.
According to the UK guidance published in February 2020, they claimed that both surgical mask and respirator masks provide 80% protection from SARS, a fairly similar virus compared to COVID-19. This guidance was based on a 2017 review before the SARS emerged. Most authorities in the UK use this guidance for recommendations on levels of protection from COVID-19.
In March 2020, the Public Health England published a set of guidelines for using certain types of masks and the procedures before a PPE fitting. These guidelines are mainly directed to hospital workers. The paper mainly suggests that:
- The hospital should gauge the level of risk of inspection within their premises before deciding on the proper PPE to wear.
- Before wearing masks or any type of PPE, the wearer should remove their jewelry. Tie their hair back, drink water, and urinate if they need to.
According to Public Health England, these are the times to use surgical face masks and an FFP3 respirator.
When to use surgical face masks:
- In cohorted areas with no COVID-19 infected individuals
- Close contact with COVID-19 infected individuals (within one metre)
The wearer should also wear PPE.
When to use FFP3 respirator:
- Hospital procedures where you need to carry aerosol-generating procedures on a patient with confirmed or unconfirmed COVID-19 infection.
- High-risk areas like the ICU.
The wearer should also wear PPE, long-sleeved disposable gowns, gloves, and disposable eye protection.
What is the verdict?
Standard face masks or surgical masks are as effective as respirator masks like N95, FFP2, FFP3, and so on, preventing airborne viruses such as influenza. However, it's still inconclusive whether face masks or respirators masks are superior to the other when it comes to "absolutely" preventing COVID-19 from entering the respiratory system in humans.
It is clear, though, that both masks are needed to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19. Both are best paired with PPEs. More research on how to further increase the protection level of certain protectants like PPE is ongoing.
Aside from wearing protective gear such as face masks or respirators, one should also combine these protectants with relevant immune-strengthening habits like eating healthy, exercising, washing hands regularly, and social distancing.