As supply of N95-style respirators grows, some say it's time to upgrade our masks

  • 2021-04-09
  • 1883

Since the pandemic began, masking recommendations in Canada have centred on the idea of protecting others: my mask protects you, your mask protects me. However, more contagious and potentially more dangerous variants of COVID-19 have some asking if it's time for an upgrade, so that people can rely on their masks to protect themselves as well as others.

Until recently, the supply of high-grade masks such as N95 respirators was limited, so they were mainly reserved for front-line health workers. The public was urged to rely on cloth masks to help limit the potential spread of droplets containing the virus from the nose and mouth.

However, the supply of N95 respirators for front line-medical staff has now caught up to demand in Canada and imports are more prolific. As a result, N95s and their international equivalents — such as the KN95 from China and KF94s from Korea — are becoming more widely available to average consumers. This has some advocating for their wider use in the community, and calling on Health Canada to change its messaging around which masks the public wear.

"In Canada we've always been reactive. We've always done things a little too late, a little too little," said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency physician in Toronto.

Pirzada is the co-founder of a group called Masks4Canada, which pushed to make public masking mandatory early in the pandemic. More recently, the group co-wrote an open letter to the government urging it to acknowledge what Masks4Canada, along with over 600 Canadian and international experts say is an overwhelming amount of evidence showing the virus is airborne.

"It's one of the best explanations of why it's spreading. And if we remember a very related virus, SARS-CoV-1, was airborne as well," Pirzada said. "Even if it's not airborne, we know [COVID-19] is more transmissible, so at least we can be more proactive about it and a higher quality mask may help. I think that's enough to really promote it right now."

"We are recommending you consider a three-layer, non-medical mask which includes a middle filter layer," Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said in a press conference in November, 2020, and since then the recommendations have not changed. Only those at higher risk of exposure, or of more severe disease or outcomes if they contract COVID-19, are told to consider wearing a medical-grade surgical mask if one is available to them. 

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