With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has recommended people wear face coverings in public. In addition, many entities such as retail stores, health care facilities, and other places require them. They are also required for businesses re-opening in the State of Washington when the 6-foot social distancing cannot easily be maintained.
There are several types of face masks the general public is using, but in this particular article we’re going to cover the disposable ones most people are familiar with. These include surgical masks as well as the N95 masks worn both by health care professionals as well as other industries such as painters. The woman shown at right is wearing a surgical mask. The photo below shows an assortment of industrial N95 masks and respirators. (Please note: until very recently industrial grade N95 masks were not approved for health care workers; this restriction was lifted due to the short supply of medical-grade protective masks.)
The first thing you should be aware of is that the CDC DOES NOT recommend the public purchase and use the surgical grade masks or N95 masks (unless you have been directed otherwise by your health care professional) due to these masks being in limited supply and sorely needed by health care workers and first responders. Still, you may see individuals out in public with either of these types of masks.
Because there is such a limited supply of surgical and N95 masks that are required for health care workers, what was once considered a disposable item is now often being reused by necessity. The question then arises – can disposable face masks safely be re-used?
The answer is a little complicated. No, it’s not recommended (after all, they were designed to be disposable – removed and safely disposed of as the person is leaving the restricted area, such as an operating room or a hospital room where a patient is in isolation, such as someone with MRSA or another infectious disease. They were NOT designed to be reused, but under the current circumstances there is often no choice. But for them to be safely re-used, there are certain precautions that need to be taken.
- DO NOT touch the front of the mask when removing it. Proper removal is crucial. Medical personnel are taught to avoid touching their masks, but it’s a difficult thing to do. Most of us – without realizing it – touch our faces about two dozen times an hour. If you’re wearing a mask, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to avoid doing so. Take the mask off using the ear loops.
- Store the mask in a sealed yet breathable container for a few days. Based on what we know about how long the virus will live on paper or cardboard, we recommend 48 hours. Some nurses use a simple paper lunch bag. You’ll want something that will allow the mask to air out and breathe; putting it in a sealed package like a plastic container or zip storage bag can trap moisture, causing mold.
- Can you clean the mask to re-use it? No. Hospitals have special equipment that uses gas to sterilize disposable masks that are not available to the general public. Don’t attempt to clean it with a spray, and DO NOT microwave it. There have been some social media posts recommending both of these, but they are not advisable. Cleaners will remain in the mask, which means you’ll be breathing in the vapors when you next wear it. And microwaving them may start a fire, especially if the masks contain any metal (the N95 masks often have a metal strip in the nose bridge area).
In an upcoming post we’ll discuss how to safely use and re-use those homemade cloth masks you’re seeing everywhere. The purpose of that type of mask is to prevent YOU from passing on infectious organisms, not to prevent you from catching COVID-19. As far as that prevention goes, these masks will only provide you with a false sense of security.
We’re very familiar with the safe and proper use of face coverings like surgical masks and N95 types, as our biohazard remediation techs usually wear them. MedTech Cleaners is one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading biohazard and trauma cleanup companies, and COVID-19 cleaning is one of our services. We serve the greater Spokane and Seattle areas, as well as other Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho communities, including Boise.