First, I should mention that I have no medical training beyond the first aid level. The purpose of this article is to address questions that have been of concern to me, and to toss out ideas on which others with more training and experience can comment on .
As the news about the coronavirus was gaining more attention nationally, a relative pooh-poohed the coronavirus threat by citing the annual number of flu fatalities as being a basis for comparison. In a subsequent response, he said, “Well, I’m going to keep doing what I always do. After all, what can I do about it here?” I responded, “You mean like buying a bunch of N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and avoiding crowds.” I heard only crickets after that point.
I have another relative who said, “I don’t think that we’re very threatened here in little old _________ville.” Pointing out that viruses have absolutely no respect for political boundaries and that the 1918 Spanish Flu reached remote Aleutian Islands had no effect on him. As far as I know, three weeks later he still has the same attitude, so I don’t even bring up the issue now. As someone said a long time ago, “You can only do what you can do.”
While many “panicked early” (I, myself, believe that it is more accurate to say “took precautions early”) and drove up N95 mask prices, even more people are searching for N95 masks now and are turning pale at the price tags. These efforts couldn’t be a better example of the effects of the Normalcy Bias having come home to roost for so much of the population.
Many in Europe suddenly woke up last weekend because, when the outbreak occurred in Italy, the issue was unavoidable. People around the world are accustomed to hear that bad things happen in China and Africa, but in Italy? That was too close to home for the rest of Europe and, suddenly, the head in the sand approach was no longer tenable.
They’re Living in Denial
I think that all of us have friends and family who were living in a state of denial until the stock market tanked on Monday. News from half a world away was deemed a curiosity, i.e., “What’s that got to do with me?” Bloggers and “talking heads” on television had only a limited effect on so many. Suddenly, the financial losses made it no longer possible to avoid the seriousness of the matter. “If Wall Street is tanking, what should I be doing?”
N95 Mask Supplies Depleted
So now the search for N95 masks has intensified even more so than it was a week ago. With the head of the CDC saying that the coronavirus will be with us into 2021, one wonders just how many readers here are prepared to ride out that period if they do not live on a remote homestead on a mountaintop. (While it may be excellent advice to make this lifestyle choice, such advice really isn’t helpful for the mass of readers of this blog at this particular time and concerning this particular issue.) Regarding the face mask issue, it is likely to be a “desperate times, desperate measures” situation.
In January, I was able to add to my face mask supply and purchase 25 N95 masks for $8.95 at www.keepshooting.com. I sent an email to friends and acquaintances about my great find. I am absolutely certain that most of them ignored me. The next day, the price of the box of masks went to $12.95/box. Five days later, the vendor’s supply was completely depleted.
Last night, I found a box of 30 N95 masks for $99.00, plus shipping, at Sportsman’s Guide (not the first place I would think to look). In 2012, I purchased the same box of masks on Amazon for $34.00, delivered. This morning, as write this, the masks at Sportsman’s Guide are out of stock.
Potential For Mask Re-Use?
N95 masks are described as being single-use masks by manufacturers (who profit accordingly), vendors (who profit accordingly), and a great many healthcare professionals (who routinely have daily deliveries that fill the shelves of stockrooms and from which they are supplied for free by their employers). But what should the rest of the population do when faced with a crisis like the one presented with the coronavirus?
I have posed questions on numerous sites concerning re-using N95 masks. I have received some helpful replies, but I also notice that specific parts of questions I have asked are not addressed. I expect that responders simply didn’t want to admit that they didn’t know the answer and hoped that I wouldn’t notice (an approach commonly used by politicians in handling tough questions during interviews and political debates.)
I recall finding this NIOSH link in a Survivalblog reader’s comment.
Once I read it, I posed a series of 14 questions to the CDC (see my questions on February 18 at 5:39 p.m.) my intention by breaking down the questions this way was to force answers to each specifc one. See the CDC’s response below it. Even the CDC is ducking answering certain questions with useful responses, e.g., “Many of the activities you have described are not recommended disinfection techniques for respirators. Please consult the manufacturer’s instructions on how to clean a reusable respirator.”
“Many of the activities” are not “recommended disinfection techniques?” How about telling me which ones? I can’t believe that the CDC doesn’t have a clue and can’t be a little more specific. Since some of my questions involved using military surplus gas masks as an alternative to N95 masks and involved how long I could use these masks before the filters became too contaminated, the advice to contact the manufacturer wasn’t much help. I have to think that a call from the CDC to the Fort Leonard Wood CBRN School would get a great deal more attention than I would. (I expect tp have better luck when I call the paint respirator manufacturers.)
I suppose that the bottom line is that, with face masks and contamination levels, we are not dealing with, say, anything remotely similar to pregnancy tests where any coloration indicates that a woman is pregnant. After a certain point in re-using N95 face masks, I suppose that we will just have to guess and hope for the best
I cannot imagine, however, that a military gas mask with NATO filters will not stop the coronavirus. If they can stop anthrax spores (admittedly larger than viruses) and Soviet VX gas, I have to think that stopping coronaviruses would be a “walk in the park.” I also cannot imagine how the filters could ever become so clogged by microscopic viruses (rather than by particulate matter) that they would stop working, but what do I know?
Of course, even military gas mask filters have expiration dates. Yet, does this expiration date have anything to do with the effectiveness of the filters in blocking coronaviruses, or is this something that is only of concern, for example, with Russian nerve agents?
For what it is worth–and it may not be worth much–I have seen recent comments on web sites saying that heat at low temperatures in ovens will damage the coatings on N95 masks, and that repeatedly placing an N95 mask in the sun in order to kill viruses that have collected on it will result in UV damage. I have no idea whether these opinions were solidly based on facts. Again, perhaps those with the proper credentials can comment on this issue.
Will UV Light Suffice?
I have seen comments about how UV light kills viruses. I am very interested to hear from a knowledgeable reader about whether or not using a UV light on an N95 mask will kill coronaviruses, and whether repeated use of a UV light will damage the mask.
One of the links in the CDC article, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/pdfs/UnderstandingDifference3-508.pdf states, “Ideally [the N95 mask] should be discarded after each patient encounter and after aerosol-generating procedures. It should also be discarded when it becomes damaged or deformed; no longer forms an effective seal to the face; becomes wet or visibly dirty; breathing becomes difficult; or if it becomes contaminated with blood, respiratory or nasal secretions, or other bodily fluids.” So, “ideally” an N95 mask should be discarded after a single use. A pandemic is hardly an ideal situation.
Regarding elastomeric half-face mask respirators, the CDC states:
“[It is] Reusable and must be cleaned/ disinfected and stored between each patient interaction.” Note that it does not say what “cleaned/disinfected” means. Cleaning the hard surface of an elastomeric mask is an easy concept. What is it saying about the filter itself and whether it should (or even can) be cleaned and disinfected? If a person does not touch the filter, can it be safely used numerous times since the virus will be, presumably, trapped inside or on the filter? Of course, that still begs the question of just how many times it can be used. A week? A few weeks? Months? I expect the response to that question will be, “It all depends” and that any answer is merely an educated guess, if that.
Here are a couple of additional CDC articles I found concerning the re-use of N95 masks. (I may have found one of these links in a reader’s comment here. Perhaps it was Tunnel Rabbit, a reader who has been very helpful on this subject). Read these:
If all that is needed is N95 mask fabric in order to prevent the airborne inhalation of droplets of saliva and phlegm, wouldn’t it make sense that a person could cut into several pieces the limited number of N95 masks he has on hand and then secure them with suitable tape over the intake ports of elastomeric half-face masks and military gas masks? Cutting into pieces one N95 face mask might result in having 4 or 5 useable, if smaller filters, for use with an elastomeric face masks or military gas masks. (Note that, from my limited experience, when I tried taping N95 material over a military gas mask’s intake ports, it was too hard to draw breath. That is why I pose the possibility of entirely removing the original gas mask filters. I seem to recall that one of the CDC links said not to place standard surgical masks over N95 masks as a covering. I expect that doing so changes the flow of air and, therefore, the mask’s performance, negatively.)
Another idea I have is to use the replaceable N95 filter inserts used in the more expensive N95 masks and to place them externally over elastomeric paint respirator intake ports with the respirator’s factory filters removed in order to improve air flow. These replacement filters still appear to be plentiful and are commonly available on Amazon, The price of these filters is currently much more modest than the price of complete N95 face masks. Note that the description says that they are N95 filters, so I am hoping that this representation is accurate.
Other Ideas, Folks?
Again, I hope to see that a knowledgeable reader will confirm that this idea will work. If it does, instead of buying N95 masks at grossly inflated prices, buying a standard paint respirator and using these N95 replacement filters over the intake ports would be the most economical way to go, and it would stretch readers’ dollars by prolonging the use of limited supplies of masks.
About properly fitting and re-using an N95 mask, see this video. Note that the video mentions re-using the mask and shows it being stored in a new bag each time. Think about it. Any viruses would be on the outside of the filter, and one side of the bag would always be contaminated. Once the mask was removed, the bag would close and the contaminated side would be in contact with the uncontaminated side. Re-using the bag would contaminate the clean side of the mask.
Besides Zip-Lock bags, I have to think that most types of plastic bags, or even paper bags, would be suitable for storing a face mask.
Having “spoken my piece” I now welcome any comments from people in “higher paygrades” that might shed light on what I may have gotten wrong, or to confirm what I got right. I also suggest that any reader check the Comments Section to find these helpful comments from others.
I also suggest that each reader who is concerned about this issue re-visit SurvivalBlog in a day, and even in a couple of days in order to read the comments that were posted later.