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  • Joel Longstreth

COVID Masks 101

Protective masks are now an integral component of cotidien life. We are not taking sides in debates on to mask or not to mask or which type is best. We only want to clarify the definitions and fine points of cloth, N95 and surgical masks along with a bit of history. Masks are a component of best practices working in concert to prevent the spread of pathogens.



103 years ago, masks were ubiquitous during the pandemic of 1917 and 1918. People felt like they were doing something to prevent the spread. Similar to the current unpleasantness, the masks were ineffective because the masks were too porous. The technology to measure the tiny size of the virus did not exist. Like the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793, the causes were not understood.


Jump cut to present day: The US government is spending $ 86 million to distribute cloth masks. So that settles any controversy over which is most effective.


N95 masks


N 95 masks are most commonly used for demanding applications such as sanding drywall.

Each breath requires effort. This is not practical for a surgical procedure which can take hours. I was fortunate enough to have several left over from a home improvement project when COVID hit last spring. Breathing through them for 6 weeks until procedure masks were available was no bargain.


Here is a concise definition of an N 95 mask. A true N95 mask must comply with regs by

the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)


Surgeons have traditionally worn masks ( " procedure " ) to protect the patient from pathogens / microloads in their breath. Even if the filter media captures 100%, small channels for breathing are necessary to prevent fatigue.


What is the difference between an N 95 mask and a Procedure grade ASTM level 2 mask ?



To refer to an N95 respirator mask as a surgical mask is a misnomer.


As reported by CDC (Centre of Disease Control) the An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. The edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical N95 Respirators are commonly used in healthcare settings and are a subset of N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFRs), often referred to as N95s.

The similarities among surgical masks and surgical N95s are:

  • They are tested for fluid resistance, filtration efficiency (particulate filtration efficiency and bacterial filtration efficiency), flammability and biocompatibility.

  • They should not be shared or reused. Who knew ? Thanks, CDC. We would have never figured that out on our own.


Procedure or Surgical masks


As reported by the CDC (Centre of Disease Control) A surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. Surgical masks are regulated under 21 CFR 878.4040. While there is some variation within the species, the common element is 3 layers of nonwoven.

The intent of a surgical mask is to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria) which take a free ride on saliva and respiratory secretions. Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and the face.

Did you know ? Until it was acquired by Ahlstrom, the C H Dexter company in CT was the oldest, longest trading stock on the NYSE. They made felt which was the forerunner of nonwoven long before 1776.


Cloth masks

The job description for cloth mask is the same as any other type. It is of course intended to trap respiratory droplets released from talking, coughing or sneezing. It also acts as a barrier to protect the wearer from inhaling droplets released by others. The most effective cloths masks are made of multiple layers of tightly woven fabric like cotton. Old fashioned cloth masks generally are not subject to the same scrutiny as surgical or N 95 masks.


The author in the waning days of Texas mask mandates at a Buc - ees travel plaza


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