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COVID-19 FAQs for police

We answer some commonly asked questions about N95 masks and officer safety

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A North Charleston police officer carries a protective mask around his gun belt.

AP Photo/Mic Smith

By Marianne Meyers

While there is much we still do not know about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, we do know that the donning of personal protective equipment (PPE) can help reduce the risk of infection for frontline personnel.

Below we answer some frequently asked questions about PPE and other associated issues around the COVID-19 pandemic.

What questions do you have about protecting your health during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email

What is an N95 mask?

An N95 mask is designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth, preventing airborne particles from reaching the wearer of the mask. They are commonly used in healthcare, construction or other jobs that expose workers to dust and small particles. Prior to the utilization of an N95 mask, users undergo fit testing to ensure that the mask is effective.

What’s the difference between an N95 mask and a surgical or dust cover mask?

N95 masks differ from surgical masks because they have a tighter fit and provide additional protection from airborne particles while a surgical mask only provides droplet protection. Surgical masks, which also might be called dust masks, are designed to protect against sneezes, fluids or splatters that may contain germs. Surgical masks don’t protect against the inhalation of germs in the air, which the N95 mask protects against.

When is an N95 mask used?

Healthcare providers will use N95 masks to treat patients with respiratory symptoms (such as coughing and sneezing) to help prevent transmission of disease.

When is a surgical mask used?

Surgical masks, which also might be called dust masks, are designed to protect against sneezes, fluids or splatters that may contain germs.

Why do some patients wear surgical masks?

Patients with symptoms may be asked to wear a mask so that they reduce the number of germs they cough or sneeze onto people and surfaces near them.

Do I need to shave my beard to use an N95?

Possibly, certain facial hair prevents the N95 from fitting correctly. Facial hair should be completely contained within the N95 mask boundaries. See the image below for guidance. Surgical masks/dust masks don’t require you to be clean-shaven.


Can I share or reuse my masks?

Normally N95 masks are intended for single-use and should not be shared. Because of the national emergency, the CDC has posted National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines for extended use and limited reuse of N95 masks. Read more on stretching your service’s supply of N95 respirators.

What are ventilators?

Ventilators are machines that breathe automatically for a patient while they are sedated. They are used in ICUs when patients are unable to get enough oxygen on their own and during surgery when a patient is under anesthesia.

Why do hospitals need more ventilators?

COVID-19 targets the lungs, leading to complications like pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, conditions which may cause a patient to need a ventilator to breathe for them while their body is fighting the infection.

Currently, hospitals have ventilators proportional to the number of beds they have. For example, a 150-bed hospital may have 20 ventilators. This has worked so far because not every hospitalized patient needs a ventilator but if a lot of patients who need respiratory support are admitted, eventually there won’t be enough machines for every patient. If large numbers of patients are admitted to the hospital all at once, the system will get overwhelmed.

What is exponential growth?

Exponential growth is growth that increases even more rapidly the more cases that are present. Therefore, if cases are doubling every day, 1 person will become 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 and so on.

Why does exponential growth matter?

Small numbers will become much larger in a short period of time without any intervention. For example, one infected person will lead to one hundred and twenty-eight in a week. Then in two weeks, there will be 16,384 sick people.

CDC: Understanding the difference between masks by Ed Praetorian on Scribd


World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): situation report, 46, March 6, 2020.

About the author

Marianne Meyers, BS, is a third-year medical student at the University of Washington School of Medicine interested in pursuing emergency medicine. Previously, she was a member of the Santa Clara University collegiate EMS squad where she received her B.S. in Public Health Science. Additionally, she has worked with the King County Public Health Department in Seattle, Washington studying EMT naloxone administration.