Importance: Procuring respiratory protection for clinicians and other health care workers has become a major challenge of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and has resulted in nonstandard practices such as the use of expired respirators and various decontamination processes to prolong the useful life of respirators in health care settings. In addition, imported, non-National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators have been donated or acquired by hospitals as a potential replacement for limited NIOSH-approved N95 respirators.
Objective: To assess fitted filtration efficiencies (FFEs) for face mask alternatives used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Design, setting, and participants: For this quality-improvement study conducted between April and June 2020, we used the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Quantitative Fit Testing Protocol for Filtering Facepiece Respirators in a laboratory atmosphere supplemented with sodium chloride particles to assess the FFEs of a variety of respirators worn by a male volunteer and female volunteer.
Main outcomes and measures: The FFEs of respirators commonly worn by clinicians and other health care workers and available respirator alternatives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results: Of the 29 different fitted face mask alternatives tested on 1 man and 1 woman, expired N95 respirators with intact elastic straps and respirators subjected to ethylene oxide and hydrogen peroxide sterilization had unchanged FFE (>95%). The performance of N95 respirators in the wrong size had slightly decreased performance (90%-95% FFE). All of the respirators not listed as approved in this evaluation (n = 6) failed to achieve 95% FFE. Neither of the 2 imported respirators authorized for use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were not NIOSH-approved tested in this study achieved 95% FFE, and the more effective of the 2 functioned at approximately 80% FFE. Surgical and procedural face masks had filtering performance that was lower relative to that of N95 respirators (98.5% overall FFE), with procedural face masks secured with elastic ear loops showing the lowest efficiency (38.1% overall FFE).
Conclusions and relevance: This quality-improvement study evaluating 29 face mask alternatives for use by clinicians interacting with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic found that expired N95 respirators and sterilized, used N95 respirators can be used when new N95 respirators are not available. Other alternatives may provide less effective filtration.