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Protecting yourself from coronavirus: The two types of face masks that can help

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Walk around any crowded area during flu season and you’ll see a common sight: people wearing medical face masks to protect themselves from pollution, germs and other contaminants. With the outbreak of a new coronavirus, these face masks are flying off the shelves in almost every drugstore. But do they really work?

Read more: Coronavirus fact check: How to spot fake reports about the mysterious disease

Although disposable face masks block large particles from entering your mouth, a more tight-fitting N95 respirator mask is far more effective at protecting you from airborne illnesses. Though the risk of contracting coronavirus in the US and other western countries is very small, if you really want to prevent viral infections, your best bet is take all of the precautions you can — including frequent hand washing and avoiding other sick people.

As of January 31, 2020, both face masks and N95 respirator masks are hard to find online, especially on Amazon and Walmart.com. Many options are either sold out, or are sold by third-party sellers for steep prices. You might have better luck heading to your local drugstore for surgical face masks and your local hardware store for N95 masks.

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Face mask vs. respirator

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This NIOSH-approved N95 respirator will prevent airborne particles from entering.

 


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If you’ve ever been to the dentist, surgical face masks will look familiar — healthcare professionals use them to prevent the splashing of fluids into their mouths. They’re loose-fitting and allow airborne particles in. People commonly wear face masks in East Asian countries to protect themselves from smog and respiratory diseases, but these masks aren’t designed to block tiny particles from the air.

A face mask’s main purpose is to keep out the liquid of another infected person’s sneeze or cough from entering your mouth or nose (gross, I know). Wearing one can protect you from getting sick if you’re in close contact with someone who is ill and also help prevent you from spreading your illness to someone else. Face masks can also help prevent hand-to-mouth viral transmissions, because you can’t directly touch your own mouth while wearing one. However, virologists say that surgical face masks cannot block airborne viruses from entering your body.

For that you’ll need a respirator, a tight-fitting protective device worn around the face. When people say “respirator”, they’re usually referring to the N95 respirator. The N95 respirator gets its name from the fact that it blocks at least 95% of tiny particles. Several brands manufacture N95 respirators, and they come in all different sizes. When shopping for this kind of mask, be sure the packaging says “N95” — some masks will only say “respirator” but if they aren’t marked as N95, you won’t get the full level of protection.

Dr. Michael Hall, a CDC vaccine provider, tells CNET in an email that N95 respirators are the most protective, but that surgical masks can be worn when taking public transport or entering crowded areas to help protect you from other people’s coughs and sneezes.

N95 masks are tricky to put on, so make sure you watch a video or check out a guide on how to fit one to your face. Hall says that the key is to wear the mask firmly around your nose and mouth without any gaps. And once it’s on, leave it on — a respirator that’s only worn sometimes isn’t nearly as effective.

Do respirators actually prevent viral infections?

The answer to this is yes, but the exact effect is difficult to define. Studies have shown that they’re highly effective in preventing viral illnesses, but only in people that actually wore the masks correctly, which is rare.

N95 masks are difficult to put on for people who aren’t medical professionals. If you’ve put the mask on right, it gets hot and stuffy, so a lot of people take it off before it can do any good.

Another study showed that respiratory masks are helpful in preventing viral infections, but only when combined with frequent handwashing.

The bottom line? A government-approved N95 mask can lower your chance of viral illness, but only if you use it correctly. Plus, you should still continue other common-sense preventative measures, like washing your hands frequently, not touching your mouth or nose and avoiding other sick people.

If you don’t have access to an N95 mask, a surgical face mask will suffice. Though, as noted, you’ll get less protection from airborne viruses if you wear a face mask. Hall says that wrapping a scarf or other cotton fiber around your nose and mouth can also work in a bind.

Do respirators protect against the new coronavirus?

The new coronavirus is officially called 2019-nCoV, and it’s part of a group of coronaviruses that includes both the common cold and the deadly SARS. The novel virus is spread through coughing, sneezing or contact with a sick person.

So, the same logic still holds — a respirator, if worn correctly and combined with other virus-prevention methods, can help lower the risk that you catch the disease.

The CDC only recommends that people wear face masks or respirators if they’re travelling in China or have already contracted the virus. However, if you’re in a place where coronavirus is present, or are especially concerned about the disease for another reason, a respirator can’t hurt.

 

How to buy a respirator

Hall tells CNET that N95 masks are difficult to find, because many brands have left the market. However, if you live near a store like CVS, Target or Walmart you may be able to pick one up. The key is to make sure the mask is approved by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

The CDC’s website has a comprehensive list of all the NIOSH-approved N95 masks, which you can use to cross-check any mask before you buy it. These masks filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, so again, if you wear them correctly they’re fairly effective.

If you’d prefer to go the face mask route, those are easy to find. Just Google “face masks near me” — most drugstores should stock them. Make sure to look at the product details to make sure it’s FDA-approved — there are a lot of face masks on the market that haven’t been cleared by the FDA.

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Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries

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A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.

Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.

It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.

Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.

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Older adults amongst the most susceptible to RSV

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TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The risk of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, typically flies under the radar when it comes to older adults.

With 10 times the amount of older adults being hospitalized for RSV than in previous years, understanding the risk is important for those who are more susceptible.

“RSV in older adults starts out with the same symptoms as younger adults. With common cold-like symptoms- nasal congestion, sniffles, low-grade temperature, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness. These symptoms will last for a few days,” Mary Derby, Nurse Manager at Pima County Health Department explained.

“However, an older adult or an adult with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease- they can experience more serious symptoms, such as getting a high fever, dehydration, and real difficulty breathing.”

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Derby says if these symptoms lead to extreme chest pain, loss of color in the face, or struggle to breathe- seek medical attention immediately.

It is also important for those assisting an older adult to be aware of the risk imposed on those more susceptible.

“If you’re caring for older adults, please wash your hands frequently. Watch for your own symptoms and stay away if you’re experiencing symptoms. Consider wearing a mask to protect that older adult, because these older adults do need that protection… Take it seriously,” Derby emphasized.

Upward 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die each year from RSV.

As we make our way through the holidays, be sure to stay up to date with COVID-19 and Influenza vaccines, stay home if you are not feeling well, wash your hands often and for those at higher risk, wear a fitted mask around others.

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Breanna Isbell is a reporter for KGUN 9. She joined the KGUN 9 team in July of 2022 after receiving her bachelor’s degree in sports journalism from Arizona State University in May. Share your story ideas with Breanna by emailing breanna.isbell@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, or Twitter.

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AIDS day walk in North Battleford aims to `banish that stigma’

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 By Julia Peterson

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On World AIDS Day, advocates in the Battlefords gathered to raise awareness about how the virus affects people in their community, and how people can get help and treatment, if they need it.

“HIV is completely preventable in today’s society, with all the advances in medication,” said Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre’s HIV project coordinator, Cymric Leask. “But due to a lot of intersecting factors, especially due to COVID  in the past couple of years, our HIV numbers have skyrocketed.”

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In 2021, more than 200 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the province, even while testing, treatment and outreach were reduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of new HIV infections in Canada, and has had the highest annual rate in the country for more than a decade.

The proportion of new HIV cases in rural areas is rising, too.

“Here up north, there are such large barriers to access to care,” said Leask. “We do have some great resources here in North Battleford  but it’s still very hard to access the proper care for HIV.”

For example, getting started on HIV medication requires a visit with a communicable disease doctor, but there is no communicable disease doctor based in the Battlefords. Instead, that doctor visits the community only once every four months.

Another barrier Leask has found is that many people still have an outdated  understanding of what HIV is, who is at risk and how treatment works.

“Especially here in rural areas, it’s stigmatized as something that only affects gay or bisexual men, men who have sex with men,” Leask said.

Today in Saskatchewan, men and women are diagnosed with HIV at almost equal rates, and two thirds of new cases are passed through injection drug use.

Treatments are much easier to manage than they used to be; some only involve taking one pill a day.

But the enduring stigma around HIV makes it harder for people to find community and support.

“People don’t talk about it,” said Jackie Kennedy, executive director of the Battlefords Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. “I think they’re afraid to. A lot of people don’t disclose that information (about their HIV status) because they are afraid to be judged.”

As more people continue to be diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan every year, groups and organizations in the Battlefords are working hard to make it easier for people to get testing, treatment, information and harm reduction supplies.

“We want to banish that stigma of how it used to be,” said Leask. “It’s not like that anymore.”

  Julia Peterson is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE STARPHOENIX

The LJI program is federally funded.

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