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Essential Workers Need Better Masks

Elastomeric N95 masks continue to be in short supply

With a vaccine still months away for most people in the United States and years away in many other countries, a specific kind of mask is the most effective way to immediately protect essential workers in a wide range of industries who may be at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. Federal, state and local governments, employers and academic institutions should help make them widely available and ensure their adoption.

In May, we wrote about the need for better masks and, in June, outlined the criteria for them, which includes protection from aerosols, small respiratory particles that can stay in the air for hours, especially in crowded, enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. (Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged that COVID-19 can spread by aerosols.) By conducting an extensive review of preexisting and emerging mask designs, we discovered elastomeric N95 masks (eN95s) are the best alternative to N95s, which continue to be in short supply even in health care settings. They are reusable, offer N95-level protection from both small particles (aerosols) and larger droplets, and are widely available for at least the immediate future.

The large-scale distribution of these masks would help address one of the major flaws in the U.S. health care system that the pandemic has exposed: Low-income Americans, especially people of color, have been disproportionately hit by the novel coronavirus. Not surprisingly, many of them work in high-risk essential jobs. Two of us have taken care of numerous people who were likely infected with COVID-19 in these scenarios. If these patients had been wearing N95-caliber masks at the time they were exposed, they may not have gotten infected.

Please select this link to read the complete article from Harvard Business Review.

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