Healthcare workers who come into direct contact with patients who are infected with the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus or who may be infected should wear N95 respirator masks and not regular surgical masks, a special panel of the Institute of Medicine reported today. Surgical masks are loose fitting and porous and provide little protection against particles as small as viruses, according to the few trials that have been carried out. N95 masks are similar in appearance to surgical masks, but are designed to form a tight seal against the wearer's skin. If fitted and worn properly, the masks block out at least 95% of virus particles, the panel found.
"Based on what we currently know about influenza, well-fitted N95 respirators offer healthcare workers the best protection against inhalation of viral particles," said Dr. Kenneth I. Shine of the University of Texas, who chaired the IOM panel. The panel did not, however, consider the cost or logistics of supplying the masks in their analysis.
Critics, however, argued that the masks are expensive--more than $1 apiece--and hot and uncomfortable to wear for any length of time. Fitting the masks properly takes time and can be difficult when switching from one brand to another -- as might occur, for example, when an institution's supplies run low and it is forced to draw from the government's respirator stockpile.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said today that the agency had just received the IOM report and would review it carefully. But the report affirms guidance CDC is already offering to healthcare providers and is unlikely to produce any changes.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II