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What is PPE and Why is it Important? Blog Feature
Stephanie Hagan

By: Stephanie Hagan on June 1st, 2020

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What is PPE and Why is it Important?

COVID-19 | 6 Min Read

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the acronym PPE is repeatedly plastered all over the internet and frankly, it’s overwhelming. In short, PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment, but there is a lot packed into those three letters. A simple web search produces over 7 million results and includes myriad topics such as the types of PPE, PPE use, reuse, and where it can be found during the pandemic. As a provider of PPE to the government and businesses, we at Winvale know that PPE is crucial for healthcare personnel and other essential workers fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic, and it’s also becoming increasingly important for civilians as they begin to head back into the office. But what really is PPE and why has it suddenly become such an important acronym?

What is PPE?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines Personal Protective Equipment as “specialized clothing or equipment worn by an employee for protection against infectious materials.”

PPE has become a popular term due to COVID-19, but it’s not new—PPE is commonly used in hospitals, on construction sites, and in other hazardous environments. In terms of COVID-19, PPE acts as a barrier between the virus and your skin, mouth, or nose and it can potentially block transmission of respiratory secretions.

To put it simply, PPE can minimize the spread of COVID-19, if used properly along with other forms of disease prevention including hand washing, using alcohol-based sanitizers, and social distancing.

What are the Types of PPE to Protect Against COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes five different types of PPE for protection against COVID-19:

  1. Masks/respirators
  2. Gloves
  3. Gowns
  4. Goggles
  5. Face shields

While all of these are important in preventing the spread of the virus, masks are the most commonly used piece of PPE between healthcare workers and the public. How many masks are there and which one do you choose? This is where it can get confusing. Let’s break it down into three main categories of masks:

1. Respirators Including N95 and KN95 Masks

These masks are characterized by the tight fit on the face, and their high filtration efficiency. They have to meet stringent filtration standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to filter out more than 95% of particles.

Although both are respirators, N95 and KN95 masks have differences in their use and availability. It’s important to remember that N95 masks should be reserved for medical personnel.

2. Medical Masks

These masks have a loose fit, are disposable, and have multiple layers or pleats. Unlike respirators, medical masks don’t have to meet certain standards by the NIOSH and do not always provide reliable protection from smaller, airborne particles.

3. Cloth Masks

Cloth masks are any sort of fabric that covers your mouth and nose. Cloth masks are primarily worn to help the wearer from transmitting the virus to others. Even though they are not as effective at reducing exposure as other masks, cloth masks are better than wearing no mask at all and are reusable. You can easily make your own at home with minimal materials.

When Should PPE Be Used?

PPE is commonly used among healthcare professionals, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for everyone to consider it as an option for protection, especially as employers consider transitioning back into the workplace.

The type of PPE varies depending on your occupation and the contaminant you’re protecting against, but there are three factors to consider when selecting PPE: the anticipated exposure, durability and appropriateness of PPE, and the fit. The CDC lists masks and gloves as effective forms of PPE for the public, and should be used in adherence to the following guidelines:

  • Masks

In addition to washing your hands regularly and maintaining a 6-foot distance, the CDC recommends that you wear a mask if you have to go out in public to get groceries or run other necessary errands. It’s important to ensure your mask fits snugly against your face, includes multiple layers of fabric, and is secured with ties or ear loops.

  • Gloves

Only wear gloves when cleaning or caring for someone who is sick. Wearing gloves to run errands is not necessary and may not protect you from contracting COVID-19. You can protect yourself by continuing to wash your hands and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. When wearing gloves, make sure to change them often and wash your hands before you put them on and after you take them off. Gowns, gloves, and face shields are more commonly used among healthcare personnel. If you are a healthcare worker, you can learn more about their use here.

Can I Reuse PPE?

The type of PPE dictates whether you can reuse it. You should never reuse gloves and they should be changed frequently. Some masks, however, can be reused if cleaned properly.

Cloth masks can be machine washed as long as you use laundry detergent, or they can be hand-washed with soap and water. If you don’t need to wear it again for a few days, you can also place the mask in a breathable container such as a paper bag and let it sit in a warm place for two days.

Respirators including N95 and KN95 masks should never be cleaned at home because cleaning products can damage the mask material and make them less effective. But you can still reuse them with proper care – place the mask in a paper bag and let it sit at room temperature for seven days, making sure the bag remains closed.

Where Can I Find PPE?

The constant demand for PPE from both the healthcare workers, essential workers, and the general public has put a strain on the supplies of PPE across the globe. Many people have begun fashioning their own cloth masks or ordering them from popular clothing brands, but more specialized PPE including N95 and KN95 respirators are in short supply, and it has affected PPE pricing.

Winvale recognizes the urgent need for Personal Protective Equipment, and recently announced a partnership with MediDent Supplies to provide PPE for the federal government, state and local governments, as well as commercial and personal use. Winvale is offering both KN95 masks and medical masks for businesses and individuals, and KN95 masks for the government through our GSA Schedule contract.

Why is PPE Important?

First and foremost, PPE is important for your safety and the others around you. As states across the U.S. begin to reopen businesses, PPE will help protect you from unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to others and it will reduce your risk of contracting it. Several studies suggest if 80% of people wear a mask in public then COVID-19 transmission could be stopped. While PPE doesn’t 100% protect everyone from COVID-19, it’s a crucial strategy to combat the virus, and will become increasingly essential as employees begin to return to the office and work in closer proximity to each other.

For further information about COVID-19 and its effect on the government and the workplace, visit our Coronavirus Resource Library.

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About Stephanie Hagan

Stephanie Hagan is the Training and Communications Manager for Winvale. Stephanie grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and earned her Bachelor's of Arts in Journalism and Rhetoric/Communications from the University of Richmond.