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Even now, over a half-year into the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare facilities are struggling with respirator shortages. Respirators like N95s are a precious resource, helping to provide protection to healthcare staff against the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while treating patients. With these shortages, hospitals are looking to conserve their supply of respirators so that staff may continue to do their essential work with the PPE they need.
Balancing the need to conserve respirators with the need to verify they will fit and protect staff, has led to questions on how to best fit test them.
Qualitative fit testing is a manual method that uses a challenge agent like Saccharin or Bitrex to subjectively measure if respirators fit staff.
While a chemical is sprayed onto the respirator with this method, the respirator is intact after the fit test. Reuse of these respirators has been allowed during this time of shortage. For this reason, many facilities have chosen to use qualitative fit testing to conserve respirator supply. It is worth noting that these respirators will have surfaces saturated with the challenge agent and reusing them may bring those contaminants into medical aseptic environments in the patient care areas.
Conversely, quantitative fit testing with the PortaCount® Respirator Fit Tester requires probing the N95 respirator to insert a sampling port. The port allows for the measurement of particles within and outside the respirator, creating a ratio called a fit factor. Quantitative testing more accurately measures fit and protection but modifies the respirator, rendering it unavailable for future reuse.
While per-single test, qualitative testing conserves a respirator but at what cost?
Qualitative fit testing provides a subjective pass or fail result based on the respirator wearer’s self-reported feedback. With this method, there is no data to tell the fit test administrator if the respirator fits extremely well, is just barely passing or if the feedback from the respirator wearer is accurate.
Qualitative methods require a trial-and-error process to identify the correct respirator to fit a facial shape. This process may require the testing of several sizes, styles and brands of respirators to find one that works. By choosing a less rigorous testing method, healthcare staff may not have the level of protection expected during these challenging times. In the end, neither the test administrator or respirator wearer may have confidence that a good fit was achieved.
With a quantitative instrument like the PortaCount® Respirator Fit Tester, real-time data can show how a respirator fits through donning, adjustment and wear. Users can then select or reject respirators more quickly and the make the adjustments needed to achieve a good fit.
The certainty provided by hard data can result in fewer respirators tested throughout the process and better training for staff on how best to achieve the maximum protection possible.
With respirators in short supply and high demand, the variability of available respirators has also become a problem. Many hospitals are buying what is available, including respirator brands and styles normally not purchased. Additionally, the market has been flooded with respirators without proper NIOSH approval from overseas and counterfeits of dubious quality.
The variability in available respirators and questions of quality and effectiveness suggests hospitals and staff would benefit from a fit testing solution that provides reliable data. Accurate data provided by quantitative fit testing methods can prove whether these new respirators fit and will protect as expected.
The seriousness of the health risks of COVID-19 combined with the uncertainty caused by respirator variability, makes choosing a good fit testing method more important than ever. Even the best respirators will not provide the protection if they fit poorly. While poor quality respirators will not provide protection with even the best fit.
With the stakes so high, using qualitative methods to conserve respirators may not be the best strategy. Quantitative testing with the PortaCount® Respirator Fit Tester allows users to achieve a good respirator fit and verify that fit and protection quickly with measurements and data. Certainty that respirators fit and are performing as expected is something that qualitative methods cannot provide.
In the end, the purpose of respirator fit testing is to benefit the health and safety of staff. Being certain staff have a good fit and protection is worth the need to probe some respirators and obtain a better fit test.
To learn more about how you can be certain you are providing staff with the best respirator fit possible, visit: www.tsi.com/focus/covid-19-and-tsi-questions-and-answers/