Prevent Airborne Transmission in Healthcare
It is well-established that N95s offer more protection than surgical masks against breath-emitted airborne pathogens  and wildfire smoke , which are micron-size fine particles. There is no scientific argument suggesting that surgical masks are equal to N95 respirator masks in protecting against wildfire smoke. Health authorities  recommend respirator masks for wildfire smoke, and it is important to maintain high protection standards for airborne pathogens as well—including COVID-19, a Biosafety Level 3 airborne pathogen  requiring robust protective lab equipment , which has killed millions  and disabled millions more .
Despite abundant evidence supporting the superiority of respirator masks, the CDC advisory group HICPAC  (Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee) has questioned whether N95s provide an advantage over surgical masks for protection against airborne transmission. In their June 2023 meeting , HICPAC claimed that data show comparable protection, while recommending surgical masks for seasonal coronaviruses, and N95s for diseases considered “novel” or “pandemic phase,” despite the fact that this distinction does not reflect the airborne transmission mechanism. They previously suggested it might be possible to declare SARS-CoV-2 as seasonal , even though it isn’t , as it’s causing substantial morbidity and mortality throughout the year, including outside of the traditional viral respiratory seasons. Peak activity is influenced by rapid evolution of new variants/subvariants , times of increased travel and multi-household gatherings , COVID-19 precautions in place, and rapidly waning immunity , among other factors.
Research shows allowing COVID-19 to spread in healthcare settings has severe consequences. For the past year, nearly a third of COVID-19 hospital cases in England were hospital-acquired . Hospital-acquired COVID-19 had a 10% mortality rate . Studies show hospital-acquired COVID-19 caused 1.5-fold higher risk of in-hospital all-cause mortality than influenza  and made people’s existing illnesses worse . Genomic sequences during a hospital COVID-19 outbreak showed healthcare workers were responsible for much of the spread .
What HICPAC Claims the Science Tells Us
HICPAC’s draft proposal  includes a review of 13 studies, concluding that the “evidence suggests no difference between N95s and surgical masks.” This conclusion was reached despite footnotes indicating that virtually all cited studies were unreliable due to confounding variables. These include community and coworker exposures, patient mask use, recall bias, and compliance not reported or not measured objectively.
The HICPAC mask review also neglects the role of asymptomatic transmission  which makes it possible and likely that, without adequate respiratory protection, healthcare workers, who are under pressure to work when ill , will infect patients. Moreover, the studies cited do not account for patient healthcare-acquired infections, and adverse outcomes, including for vulnerable patients.
What the Science Actually Tells Us
Aerosol science explains that COVID-19 spreads through aerosol particles which can infect when inhaled. Like smoke, these tiny particles can float and travel well beyond 6 feet in the air. In indoor spaces that are not properly ventilated, they can remain in the air for hours , even after the source has left the space.
Respirators are more effective than masks according to many studies:
- Mask efficacy depends on airborne viral load, and high viral load, which is expected in healthcare settings where patients with illnesses congregate, makes inhaling particles emitted by others unavoidable without adequate fit and filtration, necessitating certified respirator use rather than medical masks .
- With only the susceptible wearing a surgical mask, the upper bound of infection risk is 90% after 30 minutes. However, when both the susceptible and infected wear a well-fitted respirator mask, the risk is 0.4% after an hour .
- Continuous use of N95 respirators is more effective compared to intermittent use of N95 respirators or medical masks. In a particular study the incidence of illness was 7.2% for continuous N95 use, 11.8% for intermittent N95 use, and 17% for medical masks .
- When medical masks were replaced with FFP3 respirators for nurses on a COVID-19 ward, infection risk declined by 52%-100% .
What NIOSH and FDA Tell Us
The superiority of respirators over surgical masks is supported by decades  of scientific research, the consensus on dominance of airborne transmission for COVID-19 , and by the standards of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) .
NIOSH  states: “Surgical masks are not respiratory protection: A surgical mask can help block large particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter … They do not form a tight seal against the skin or filter very small airborne pathogens…involved in airborne disease transmission.”
The FDA , which regulates surgical masks in the U.S., states  “surgical masks are not intended to provide protection against pathogenic biological airborne particulates and are not recommended for use in …any clinical conditions where there is significant risk of infection through inhalation exposure”, and “a filtering facepiece respirator (e.g. N95) with a tight fit is recommended to provide a more reliable level of respiratory protection against pathogenic biologic airborne particulates.”
Why Our Feedback Is Important
- “Work in partnership with others in and outside of government to turn science into public health action and results.”
- “Engage CDC Senior Leadership and decision makers in ongoing forums to receive feedback on issues and concerns from key stakeholders: State/local/territorial health officials; providers; researchers; employers; community-based organizations; policy makers; and the public.”
The CDC has yet to deliver on its promises to open up communications. The National Nurses United (NNU) stated  recently “Currently, access to HICPAC meetings and meeting materials is extremely limited… [for] input from health care workers, their unions, patients, or community members.”
There is no room for errors in guidance on effective PPE to protect healthcare workers and patients, especially given both short and long-term effects of COVID-19.
Failing to protect healthcare workers and patients goes against common sense and compassion, harms healthcare workers and patients, and forces patients to choose  between foregoing needed care or risking severe outcomes. The HICPAC’s infection control recommendations must include scientifically based protections including universal use of respirators against airborne pathogens.
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