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Has the novel coronavirus got you thinking about wearing a face mask or respirator on your next flight?

Below are a few things I learned when I worked in a Toronto hospital during the SARS crisis 17 years ago. (Compared to other parts of the world, Toronto was hit especially hard by the SARS coronavirus, with more than 400 cases and 44 deaths.) My job was screening visitors at a rehabilitation hospital’s front desk, and I wore an N90 respirator (the heavy-duty face mask) and full protective gear.

It needs to fit

First off, using just any face mask (also called a respirator) that’s not fitted to your face by a professional will not give you the full protection you might expect. I had to try three different (disposable) styles under the supervision of a professional respirator-fitter before finding one that had the correct fit. Comfort during this crisis was honestly the last concern, and they were terribly uncomfortable because the fit was so snug. There are articles (like this one) and videos making the rounds showing the face-mask-indented flesh of Wuhan nurses after their rounds. Just so you know what you’re getting into, properly worn (even for a few hours) N90 face masks are uncomfortable and restrict breathing, in my experience.

How you put it on and take it off matter a lot

If you’re going to wear a N90 or N95 face mask, learn the proper steps involved in putting it on and taking it off. Once it’s on, you leave it on and you don’t touch it at all until you’ve taken the appropriate hand-washing and disposal steps. The WHO posted this short video on taking off—aka “doffing”—a mask:

Don’t mess this part up! If you rub germs all over your face, you’re undoing the point of covering your mouth and nose. Don’t trust your memory of the steps, either. At the hospital, we had a laminated instruction checklist to reinforce the proper “doffing” steps. Make your own checklist or grab a screenshot to refer to on your phone.

Think twice before using a reusable masks or sleep eyemask

Recently Gwyneth Paltrow took a plane selfie wearing a reusable face mask and sleep eyemask. For smog, a reusable face mask makes sense, but for germs, I was left wondering: Was she going to take the appropriate steps to disinfect her mask right after she used it? Or was she going to stuff it in her purse? That’s a terrible idea if it’s contaminated, obviously. That’s why you’ll often see public health officials encouraging disposable masks, if they’re encouraging them at all.

Also, if you’re worried about plane viruses, don’t use a sleep eyemask if you’re going to have to touch your face repeatedly to put it on and off. Think about the logistics here. Once it’s over your eyes and you can’t see anything, how will you wash your hands to take it off? “Wash your hands frequently” but also “don’t touch your face” is the consistent messaging we hear from public health officials during this COVID-19 outbreak.

One final note…

I’m definitely not a trained respirator-fitter, nor am I a public health official or occupational health specialist. What I do have is a lot of experience wearing heavy-duty face masks, and the above tips come from my experience. Read them, but please also do your own research and consult health professionals, as this post isn’t meant as a substitution for medical advice.


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Helen Racanelli
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1 Comment On "What to Know Before Wearing a Face Mask on a Plane"
  1. James|

    All respirators require a “Mask Fit Test.” This can be qualitative, or quantitative, depending on the mask. If you didn’t get a mask fit test, you have no idea if you’re wearing the right size respirator, correctly.

    If you don’t know how or where to get that Mask Fit Test, you’re not going to find one, easily. They are available for EMS/Fire and Hospital providers.

    I’ve been a Fireman for 35 years, an EMT for 20+, and I spent some time as a respiratory protection specialist.

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