Why it is important to wear an N95/KN95 respirator

Eva Philips, Staff writer

The world has been living with COVID-19 for over two years now, but the pandemic itself has changed greatly in that time. With the rise of new variants and the availability of vaccines, there are plenty of ways to stay safe and prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Despite this, the virus has been spreading rapidly in recent weeks due to the development of the Omicron variant, which is highly contagious. Therefore, it is particularly important for everyone regardless of vaccination status to exercise greater caution.

The solution? Along with vaccination and booster shots, experts are still recommending face coverings.

But not all masks are created equal. Cloth masks may be popular because they can be customized in stylish patterns and colors, but pores of the cloth typically are several times larger than coronavirus particles. This would allow the virus to pass through the mask for the wearer to inhale.

Surgical masks are better than cloth masks, but still not perfect. They consist of multiple layers, but their primary intention is to catch infectious droplets that the wearer exhales rather than to prevent the wearer from inhaling the virus. Even so, they offer far better protection from COVID-19 than going maskless, especially if they are fitted properly without gaps.

Individuals can also choose to wear a cloth mask over a surgical mask for additional protection.

The best mask, experts say, is not technically a mask, but a respirator. N95 and KN95 respirators that meet international standards actively filter particles from the air. They are over 95 percent effective at catching airborne particles, large and small. They also catch any infectious particles that the wearer breathes out.

What makes KN95s and other respirators more effective? They include polypropylene fibers and other materials that physically block aerosols while carrying an electrostatic charge for even further protection.

At the beginning of the pandemic these respirators were hard to find. At that time, the general agreement was to reserve the supply of highly protective respirators for healthcare workers.

Now, respirators are more common. Online retailers like Amazon sell them in multipacks, typically priced around one dollar apiece. Buying them online presents risks, however. Experts estimate that counterfeit KN95s make up around two-thirds of those for sale in the United States. It can be difficult to determine which respirators are authentic and which do not provide adequate protection.

Another challenge for some is the relatively high cost of KN95 and N95 masks. To remedy this, the Biden administration is distributing free N95 masks through health centers, pharmacies, and other stores.

For those who opt to purchase respirators themselves, N95s must be NIOSHapproved, and it is recommended that consumers purchase from verified manufacturers or reliable retail stores like CVS.

If the standard color options for most respirators seem too dull — they typically come in either black or white — retailer VIDA sells N95s and similarly protective masks in a range of colors and are not that expensive. They are available from shopvida.com.

While any mask — cloth, surgical or respirator — is better than none at all, KN95s and N95s are the best option for preventing infection and protecting others. The more Lakers who choose to wear certified N95-grade respirators, the healthier the Mercyhurst community will be, and the sooner we can all get back to “normal.”