Aussie experts stop short of recommending N95 masks

Steve ZemekNCA NewsWire
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Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: News Corp Australia

Australian experts have stopped short of recommending the use of N95 surgical masks in the community, despite the continued spread of Omicron.

The respirators offer the gold standard of protection for disposable masks and filter 95 per cent of particles.

And some have questioned why they have not been adopted as the mask of choice for the community during the current wave, given the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that respirators such as N95 masks offer the highest level of protection.

And the US government last week announced that it was providing 400 million free N95 masks to the public.

Camera IconSydney-siders walking the streets in N95 masks on Sunday. NCA NewsWire / Jeremy Piper. Credit: News Corp Australia

The N95 mask is a type of respirator which filters out large and small particles and is designed to reduce exposure to bushfire smoke and other circumstances in which air quality is poor.

So far, Australian officials have stopped short of recommending N95 masks despite them offering more protection against the spread of the disease.

Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Professor Alison McMillan last week said that there was no evidence to suggest we move towards N95 use in daily life.

Infectious diseases expert and former federal deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said that while N95 masks had their place for healthcare workers, he wouldn’t go as far as recommending they are needed for people walking the streets.

“You want to use PPE to protect from the disease,” Dr Coatsworth told NCA Newswire.

“You upgrade commensurate to the risk.

“You think about the images of the people going to fight the Ebola virus where health workers are double-gloved, taping themselves up in head to toe suits and spraying themselves down with chlorine as they come out of the treatment centre. They do that because they know if they get ebola you’ve got a 30-50 per cent chance of dying.

“It’s not just a question of how much they protect an individual, it’s a question of what are you protecting from?”

And he said N95 masks weren’t necessary to protect the average person from Covid.

“If people who are vulnerable did not go around wearing an N95 during a very severe influenza season, like in 2017, then there is no reason why they should be going around wearing them right now,” he said.

“You could make the case for wearing one if someone was particularly vulnerable.

“And that doesn’t mean just a little bit of diabetes or a little bit of blood pressure.

“It really means severe immune suppression. Someone who had leukaemia and was in the middle of their chemotherapy, or someone who has had a lung transplant.”

N95 masks are not designed to be reused and can require specialist fitting.

Healthcare workers use a “fit tester” which involves trying on several masks and measuring air “leakage”.

“In a community setting you can probably get away with doing what’s called a fit check,” Dr Coatsworth said.

“That basically means standing in front of the mirror with this thing on. When you breathe in, if you see the thing sort of collapsing a little bit, then that’s good, because it maintains a good seal.

“And when you’re exhaling, if you’re feeling something go into your eye, or leaking at your chin, it’s not the right one to use. And it’s probably not doing that much more than a surgical mask.”

Originally published as Aussie experts stop short of recommending N95 masks

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