RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As the omicron variant spreads, N95 masks are in high demand, and Wake County’s free masks are going fast. With supplies limited, the county said it can only give out one mask per person. We wanted to know if that’s enough.
N95 masks are generally considered disposable, but doctors said they can be reused if needed.
“The ideal is to change it out every day, but we don’t have the stockpile for that,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, medical director of occupational health at UNC and medical director of the Orange County Health Department.
She said to rotate masks when able.
“There are some people who have the strategy where they may have a couple, and so perhaps on Monday they use mask one and then they don’t reuse that one until Thursday,” she explained.
If you only have one mask, she said you can keep using it until it gets dirty, wet, or damaged, or no longer seals tightly to your face.
If you’re going to reuse your mask, she said it’s best to store it in a paper bag and wash your hands before and after taking the mask off and putting it on.
“You certainly don’t want to contaminate the inside of the mask,” she said. “If you just walk into a room and touch the doorknob that somebody had just sneezed on and then you put your mask on without washing your hands, that could contaminate the mask.”
She said if you repeatedly put your mask on and take it off, you’ll want to pay close attention to the straps. They can stretch out and affect the way the mask fits your face.
A mask that no longer seals tightly or has gaps that let air escape won’t protect you as well, so it’s good to try on any mask you get and make sure no air is leaking out.
“If you get one of those free N95s, they’re not going to fit everybody,” Pettigrew said.
If you can’t find an N95 that fits your face tightly, Pettigrew said knotting and tucking a surgical mask or double masking with a cloth mask over a surgical mask may give you a better fit.
“Those are good options, too, if you don’t have access to a well-fitting N95,” she said.
She pointed out these guidelines are for the general public. They don’t apply to health care workers.
Anyone in Wake County who wants a free N95 mask can check its website for locations and hours they’re available.