Respirators Key To Coronavirus Battle But They Must Be Worn Correctly A respirator is a central piece of protective gear vital for keeping health care workers healthy — but wearing one incorrectly can put the wearer at risk.

Respirators Key To Coronavirus Battle But They Must Be Worn Correctly

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You want to stop the spread of coronavirus? You got to keep health workers safe. That means giving them the protective gear they need, including something called a respirator, which protects someone from breathing in viral particles. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca traveled to the 3M mask manufacturer in Minnesota.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: At 3M, they've been thinking about how to respond to the coronavirus outbreak for a while.

NIKKI MCCULLOUGH: In mid-January, we started to notice some strange disease patterns coming out of China.

PALCA: Nikki McCullough is an occupational safety and health leader at 3M.

MCCULLOUGH: We realized that this could be something that we might need to help respond to.

PALCA: 3M makes all kinds of protective equipment, including what are called N95 respirators, the kind of mask health care workers are encouraged to wear. 3M already makes millions of these, but more are needed.

MCCULLOUGH: We are ramping up production in all of our manufacturing facilities for respirators all over the world.

PALCA: McCullough and I met at 3M's global respiratory fit laboratory.

MCCULLOUGH: This laboratory is where we take respirators that we've designed, and we test them on a variety of people who've got a variety of different faces.

PALCA: To be protective, a mask has to keep tiny particles floating in the air from entering your nose or mouth. Surgical masks can only block large droplets. N95 respirators, on the other hand, have layers of specialized filter material that will keep out virtually any small particle. But no matter how sophisticated the respirator is, you have to wear it correctly.

MCCULLOUGH: And if somebody doesn't put it on properly or doesn't shave their face before putting it on, they might have some leakage around the edge.

PALCA: And that could let viral particles seep in. Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only health care workers and people caring for COVID-19 patients need to use N95 respirators, so most people won't need to bother with them. Still, I wanted to know the proper way to wear one, and McCullough was happy to show me.

MCCULLOUGH: You want to make sure that it's covering your nose and mouth and touching your face all the way around.

PALCA: She places the cup-shaped respirator over her face.

MCCULLOUGH: I've now got it over my nose and mouth.

PALCA: There are two straps attached to the respirator.

MCCULLOUGH: I want to use both straps.

PALCA: She pulls the bottom strap up and over her head, resting it on the back of her head.

MCCULLOUGH: And the other strap is going to sit on the crown of my head.

PALCA: The next thing you do is form the nose clip. This is a metal band at the top of the mask.

MCCULLOUGH: And you need to take two fingers and press down on that metal nose clip, starting on your nose, all the way across your cheeks.

PALCA: The last thing is to check for leaks. McCullough holds her hands over the mask and breathes in and out.

MCCULLOUGH: If it's got leaks, usually, you can feel it up in your eyes - air rushing in your eyes or under your chin.

PALCA: Now, I've worn these respirators. I was told to wear them when I went to Hong Kong in 2003 to cover the SARS outbreak. I found wearing them distinctly unpleasant. They are hot, and breathing was difficult. I asked McCullough about that.

So am I just a wuss, or is this a pain in the neck to wear?


PALCA: (Laughter) OK.

McCullough says yes, they are a bit of a pain to wear.

MCCULLOUGH: But people get acclimated to them, just like people get acclimated to wearing a bike helmet when they bike.

PALCA: And if the alternative is disease, most people actually treating infectious patients have a strong incentive to keep them on. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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