With medical supplies in high demand, federal authorities say health workers can wear surgical masks for protection while treating COVID-19 patients—but growing evidence suggests the practice is putting workers in jeopardy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said lower-grade surgical masks are “an acceptable alternative” to N95 masks unless workers are performing an intubation or another procedure on a COVID patient that could unleash a high volume of virus particles. But scholars, nonprofit leaders and former regulators in the specialized field of occupational safety say relying on surgical masks—which are considerably less protective than N95 respirators—is almost certainly fueling illness among front-line health workers, who likely make up about 11% of all known COVID-19 cases.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s one of the reasons that so many health care workers are getting sick and many are dying,” said Jonathan Rosen, a health and safety expert who advises unions, states and the federal government.
As of April 23, more than 21,800 health care workers had gotten the coronavirus and 71 had died, according to a House Education and Labor Committee staffer briefed by the CDC.
The CDC’s advice contrasts with another CDC webpage that says a surgical mask does “NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and is not considered respiratory protection.”
Put simply, in worker safety, “a surgical mask is not PPE,” or personal protective equipment, said Amber Mitchell, president and executive director of the International Safety Center and immediate past chair of the occupational health and safety section of the American Public Health Association.
The allowance for surgical masks made more sense when scientists initially thought the virus was spread by large droplets. But a growing body of research shows it’s spread by minuscule viral particles that can linger in the air as long as 16 hours…