The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a few areas of concern about the limited availability of personal protective equipment—reusable N95 respirators in particular.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has taken the unusual step of issuing special guidelines for reusing N95 respirators during the shortage. While it’s always best to limit the number of times any reusable unit of protection is employed—and since there’s no way to tell the maximum times such equipment can be used—the CDC has offered specific care-taking tips in environments where re-deploying N95 respirators is unavoidable.
During shortages of N95 respirators brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, employment of reusable units should be monitored and minimized as much as possible. This is achievable by prioritizing usage of N95 respirators to the personnel carrying the highest risk of contamination, and by using more advanced protective headgear like full faceplates or gear outfitted with automatic or electric purifiers. Whenever possible, it’s best to limit the use of N95 respirators to non-emergency situations.
Should it be necessary to reuse an N95 respirator, use the following guidelines.
Consider using an outer face shield over the N95
Especially with reusable N95 respirators, additional protection is always beneficial. If possible, think about using a separate facial barrier layered on top of the N95 itself.
Wash your hands with soap and water
Before and after touching an N95 respirator, clean your hands for at least 20 to 30 seconds with soap and water. The use of an alcohol-based sanitizer is also permissible, but soap and water are demonstrably effective in destroying more germs and bacteria. Cleanse your hands after every incident of contact with your reused N95—even after just moving or adjusting it to fit more comfortably.
Never touch the inside of an N95
As with other facemasks, N95 respirators should only be handled or picked up using the straps or ties that bind it to the head. Avoid all contact with the mask itself, but especially the side that faces your mouth. Put the N95 on by wrapping the ties over the back of your head or looping it over your ears.
Always use gloves when putting on or taking off an N95 respirator
Especially when adjusting the front part to fit more snugly on your face, make sure you’re wearing protective gloves when placing or removing a reusable N95 respirator.
Discard an N95 permanently after potential or actual contact with contaminants
Whenever there’s a possibility of exposure to infected or contaminant particles while using an N95 respirator, it should be safely discarded in a designated waste receptacle immediately and not used again. This is especially necessary after contact with blood, nasal secretions, respiratory droplets or a patient’s bodily fluids, and after any aerosol-generating procedures that might produce infected droplets or moisture particles.
Store reusable N95 respirators in approved, safe places
Hospitals and clinics should have a set of procedures for storing reusable N95 respirators; it’s especially vital to follow those steps during the COVID-19 pandemic. They should be enclosed in sterile, well-ventilated containers and hung up in specifically designated areas. Whenever possible, don’t let separate N95 respirators touch each other, to minimize the risk of cross-contamination.