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COVID-19: Proper Use, Reuse And Disposal Of Masks, Verified By Experts

| Reviewed By Sneha Krishnan

As of today, there are 2,000,951 COVID-19 cases with 126,782 deaths. On a hopeful note, 484,979 have recovered. The virus outbreak that began in 2019 continues to cause casualties, while health experts around the globe are extensively working on developing a vaccine and simpler test kits [1].

The virus affects the respiratory tract of a person and the infected fluid in the tract gets transmitted to other people during coughing or sneezing [2]. The pandemic, in most people, shows only mild, cold-like symptoms - making the diagnosis a bit difficult.

According to the reports by the World Health Organization, about 80 per cent of people with the virus infection recover without needing any special treatment, where only one person in six becomes seriously ill and develops respiratory problems [3].

Immunity Boosting Tips For Indians By Ministry Of AYUSH


Use Of Masks During The COVID-19 Pandemic

To control and manage the situation, health authorities around the globe have advised everyone to stay in self-quarantine and to wear a face mask while venturing out homes to minimise the risk of spreading the disease. Face masks offer protection against respiratory infections for health care workers and the general public and reduce community transmission, making masks one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease [4].

Reports point out that due to the critical role face masks have in limiting the spread of the coronavirus disease and saving us from catching the infection, there is a global shortage of masks - stressing the need to promote a conscious use of these masks [5][6]. Individuals in good health do not have to wear a mask if they are staying at home [7]. Also, avoid touching the masks while using it, if you do, clean your hands with soap and water.


Types Of Face Masks

Cloth masks: These are good for covering your mouth and nose and are not recommended when taking care of infected patients [8]. Health experts point out that you can improve or upgrade your cloth masks by using a HEPA filter which can help increase its effectiveness against the infection [9]. High-efficiency particulate air filter or HEPA filter is at least 99.97 per cent efficient in removing mono-disperse particles of 0.3 micrometres in diameter. However, the filter can make breathing a bit restrictive.

Surgical masks: They are slightly loose-fitting, disposable masks which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and mostly used in the health-care fraternity [10]. Made of polypropylene, these disposable masks may be effective in blocking particle droplets and splashes which can contain germs [11]. Surgical masks also help in keeping the pollutants and irritants from reaching mouth and nose. However, surgical masks do not block small particles in the air that may be transmitted by nearby coughing or sneezing [12].

N95 respirator: Respirators, also called N95 respirator masks are specially designed to protect against germs in the air, like viruses. It covers your face to prevent airborne viruses from entering through the nose or mouth and are much more effective at preventing the virus than regular face masks [13]. N95 masks are to be only used by persons caring for sick persons with respiratory infections and symptoms as cough, sneezing and fever in addition to health care and frontline workers [14].

Made of polypropylene material, N95 masks filter out at least 95 per cent of very small (0.3 microns) particles and are capable of trapping 95 per cent, 99 per cent and 99.9 per cent of particles [15]. As directed by WHO and CDC, N95 masks are to be worn only when entering rooms of confirmed or suspected COVID patients and while collecting samples such as clinical specimens, soiled medical supplies and while coming in contact with potentially contaminated surfaces [16].

Coronavirus Face Masks


Can The Masks Be Re-used?

Most face masks are disposable and are for one-time use only, and should be disposed of when the inner lining gets moist. If you want to reuse the mask, it should be kept dry [17].

Cloth masks: These can be reused if it is properly washed, disinfected and dried.

Surgical masks: If it is dry and the layers are in place, keep it in a zip lock pouch with a desiccated (silica) gel because the gel will absorb the moisture and keep the mask dry. If the mask is intact and not torn, it can be reused for 3 days. If worn by an infected person, it should never be reused or shared.

N95 respirator: When reusing the N95 respirator, leave a used mask in the dry atmosphere for 3-4 days to dry it out. As the polypropylene in N95 is hydrophobic and contains zero moisture, the coronavirus which needs a host to survive will not able to survive, if the respirator is dry for 3-4 hours.

As pointed out from the experts at Narayana Health, "Best is to use four N95 masks and number them 1-4. On day 1 use mask 1, then let it dry for 3-4 days. On day 2 use mask 2 and then let it dry for 3-4 days. Same for Day 3 and Day 4. Another method is to sterilize the N95 mask by hanging it in the oven (without contacting metal) at 70 degrees C for 30 min. Or use a wooden clip to hang the respirator in the kitchen oven. Follow the guidelines provided by the manufacturer or use it maximum up to 5 times" [18].

Discard N95 respirators following use during aerosol-generating procedures, masks contaminated with blood, respiratory or nasal secretions, or other bodily fluids from patients and close contact with any patient co-infected with an infectious disease requiring contact precautions.


How To Dispose Of A Used Mask?

It is to be noted that masks should be treated as medical waste, hence refrain from casually throwing it away with other waste [19]. Do not throw the used masks in workplaces, homes, lifts, roads and open dust bins as it can pose as a potential health hazard. Used masks have respiratory secretions on them and can be dispersed and transmitted through the air.

Cloth masks: These masks should be washed properly and frequently and left to air dry and once dried, can be re-used. Again, remember that cloth masks are used only for normal things.

Surgical masks: While removing the surgical masks after use, make sure you remove it from the strings and be careful not to touch the front portion. After taking it off, fold it inwards in a way that the droplets from mouth and nose are not exposed. Fold the mask into a half, until it looks like a roll. Next, wrap the used mask in a polythene bag or a tissue paper and discard it in a separate waste bag. So, fold-wrap-dispose.

N95 respirator: Hold the edge of the straps attached to take off the mask and do not touch the inside part of the respirator. Gently remove the mask and place the mask in a plastic bag, paper bag or a zip-lock bag between uses. Secure the bag tightly and place it into garbage can or biomedical waste disposal unit. After disposal, wash your hands thoroughly [20].


On A Final Note…

Please be sensitive and aware at a time like this. Always wash your hands before and after taking off the mask and never discard it casually. Also, masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Dr Sneha adds, "Also the mask needs to always cover your nose and mouth at all times. Frequently pulling it down so it stays around your throat or wearing it on your forehead in between defeats the whole purpose."

Sneha KrishnanGeneral Medicine
Sneha Krishnan
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