Mask vs Respirator: Controlling the transmission of the COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of N95 respirators as one component to an ensemble of PPE to protect health care professionals (HCP) and emergency responders (ER) from the COVID-19 virus.

Face masks have become ubiquitous around the world. Should we wear an N95 respirator or surgical mask? Both of which are very different.

A surgical mask or procedural mask is a loose-fitting, disposable mask that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose. These masks are intended to be worn by HCP during surgery and protect the environment from the wearer. They are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or virus particles.

N95 respirators fit tight to the face and are intended to create a seal around the nose and mouth. They are meant to help protect the wearer from inhaling infectious droplets in the environment. N95 masks require a fit test, cannot be worn by those with facial hair and are considered negative pressure respirators that can make it more difficult for wearers to breathe.

When N95 respirators are not available or the requirements for use cannot be met, HCP and ER should have the option to protect themselves with powered air-purifying respirators.

A powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) or sometimes referred to as Powered Air Respirator, protects personnel from airborne contaminants. PAPRs eliminate the breathing resistance of negative pressure respirators, such as an N95 respirator, through their blower motor. A PAPR consists of a blower that pulls air through an attached filter and into a loose-fitting hood, which covers all the user’s head, face, and shoulders.

Under OSHA regulations, PAPRs are specified for high-hazard procedures because they can offer assigned protection factors (APF) up to 1,000, which is up to 10 times that of an N95 mask. This improved protection is largely provided by the positive pressure in the loose-fitting hood. PAPRs with loose-fitting hoods provide additional benefits in that they do not need to be fit tested and cover the entire head and shoulder of the wearer offering respirator, eye and splash protection in one system.