There’s endless confusion when it comes to our coronavirus response in the United States, but one thing’s clear — those masks with vents that help improve airflow aren’t nearly as effective at protecting other people from your germs. And, fortunately, Delta just helped build significant awareness around the issue with an unexpected — but welcome — vented mask ban.
Vented masks do have an appropriate use, but not when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. 3M, one of the most prolific disposable mask manufacturers, has even built a brand around its “Cool Flow Valve,” which the company says is “designed to release your hot, humid exhaled breath quickly.” Nobody wants to be anywhere near your hot, humid exhaled breath today.
My first exposure to vented masks came nearly two years ago, during an especially toxic air quality day in China. Everyone was wearing a mask, much as many of us would love to see in the U.S. right now, and a number of the masks locals and tourists chose had large protruding vents.
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Pollution is a serious serious issue in Beijing, especially in the cooler months. “Very unhealthy air quality” per the weather app last night, so my very first stop was a convenience store, where there are plenty of masks designed specifically for filtering out pollution. It’s uncomfortable (and it makes me look creepy as hell), but I could tell the difference breathing with the mask, vs. without. If you have a respiratory condition, I’d think twice before booking a fall/winter trip to China and any other countries where pollution is a major concern.
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In that situation, a vented mask was a logical pick, since I only needed to protect myself. But we’re wearing masks for an entirely different reason today.
I first noticed the issue in early May and tried to get the word out in a video on Twitter. I was able to order a handful of industrial N95 masks and attempted to hand them off to a hospital when our nationwide PPE shortage was especially severe. Unfortunately, they were rejected, since masks with valves are absolutely forbidden in healthcare settings, given that they’re less effective at preventing the wearer from spreading germs.
Have you seen this version of the N95 mask, with a built-in valve? Be VERY careful if you’re near somebody who’s wearing one. pic.twitter.com/psU5cEJCSb
— Zach Honig (@ZachHonig) May 11, 2020
Unfortunately, non-vented N95 masks are impossible to come by, since they remain in short supply, with healthcare workers still forced to reuse normally disposable masks. In some situations, though, I worry that a regular cloth mask just won’t cut it, failing to keep me safe around unmasked COVID-19 carriers. After consulting a physician in the family, I found a viable workaround, and I continue to wear my vented N95 if there’s a risk of encountering someone refusing to wear a mask indoors.
The trick is to wear your vented N95 mask, and then add a second mask on top. Some healthcare workers already wear double masks to protect their precious N95s with a cheap surgical mask, and I’ve been using the same solution myself, making it possible to wear the vented N95 to protect myself, with a surgical mask to protect others on top.
Proof that you can safely wear a mask for 30 minutes at the grocery store (and everywhere else)… pic.twitter.com/EdLXBv5n5M
— Zach Honig (@ZachHonig) June 29, 2020
That obviously defeats the purpose for anyone using a vent to improve airflow — if that’s your only reason for choosing a vented mask — but it does make it possible to safely wear a “Cool Flow Valve” mask during the pandemic, since an N95 may offer additional protection in certain situations. I’ll never wear my vented N95 by itself, though, knowing that it isn’t as effective at protecting others.
Given Delta’s latest move, I’d feel more comfortable flying the airline today. Delta is clearly taking its mask mandate incredibly seriously, going so far as to ban flyers who don’t comply, as other U.S. carriers have also vowed to do. I’m hopeful that other U.S. and international airlines will follow this latest move, too. Updating guidance regarding which masks are acceptable to wear will help keep everyone safe without a financial burden for the airline.
I did reach out to representatives at all of the U.S. airlines this week, and while none have committed to following Delta’s latest move, it’s something that’s currently being discussed. In fact, based on the feedback I received, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two U.S. airlines follow suit within the next few days, taking an important next step to improving safety at the airport and onboard.
Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.