For now, the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends treating it as an airborne pathogen.
For health-care workers directly caring for COVID-19 patients, that means wearing a heavy-duty mask called an N95 respirator designed to fit tightly around the nose and mouth which, when worn correctly, block out at least 95 percent of small airborne particles (that’s why the name N95).
On the other hand, surgical masks (what are commonly called face masks) give protection from large droplets like blood or body fluids. Worn by a patient, they give protection from particles that may contain bacteria or viruses expelled by the wearer.
Surgical masks also prevent contaminated fingers or hands away from the mouth and nose.
Face masks are single-use products. The CDC states: “A single-use device, also called a disposable device, is designed to be used on one patient and then discarded, not reprocessed for use on another patient.
“The mask’s outer surface can become contaminated with infectious droplets from spray of oral fluids or from touching the mask with contaminated fingers. Also when a mask becomes wet from exhaled moist air, the resistance to airflow through the mask increases, causing more airflow to pass around edges of the mask.
“If the mask becomes wet, it should be changed between patients or even during patient treatment, when possible.”
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also requires all employers to protect employees from workplace hazards, provide a safe workplace and provide proper Protective Personal Equipment, including surgical masks, to employees.
The OSHA states: “When there is occupational exposure, the employer shall provide, at no cost to the employee, appropriate personal protective equipment such as, but not limited to, gloves, gowns, laboratory coats, face shields or masks and eye protection and mouthpieces, resuscitation bags, pocket masks or other ventilation devices.
“Personal protective equipment will be considered ‘appropriate’ only if it does not permit blood or other potentially infectious materials to pass through to or reach the employee’s work clothes, street clothes, undergarments, skin, eyes, mouth or other mucous membranes under normal conditions of use and for the duration of time which the protective equipment will be used.”
According to Dr. Maria Geisinger who heads the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, “the use of standard precautions within the dental workplace and acquiring a thorough history of symptoms and potential exposure for patients is critical for dental health care professionals to maintain a healthy working environment.”
That is true, she says, whether the concern is flu, COVID-19 or other transmissible illnesses./WDJ