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The Doctor Is In: Steelers Upgrading Their Mask Game

When the Pittsburgh Steelers twitter account posted photos of the players heading to New York to face the Buffalo Bills for Sunday Night Football, there was a noticeable change.  Instead of their usual cloth masks, all of the Steelers were wearing N95 masks.

As Covid-19 surges place a burden on hospitals around the country, NFL teams are also facing roster challenges.  This week, the Steelers are particularly thin at inside linebacker, with Robert Spillane down at least a few weeks with a knee injury and Vince Williams fighting Covid-19 from his basement, isolating himself from his family:

The Steelers just got running back James Conner and center Maurkice Pouncey back from the Reserve/Covid list, which will hopefully breathe life back into the running game.  The Steelers still hold the #1 AFC seed but with last week’s loss to the Washington Football Team and the Chiefs continuing their winning record (they just beat the Miami Dolphins today), Pittsburgh can’t afford another loss if they want to earn a bye week prior to the start of playoffs.

And so it’s all hands on deck and they need to avoid losing any more players to Covid-19.  Based on that, the players have made the move to N95 masks for their protection.  Will it make a difference?  According to a study just published in JAMA Internal Medicine (JAMA is Journal of the American Medial Association) a few days ago, it definitely will.  And since you’re busy watching the late game while you wait for the Steelers to play tonight, I’ll summarize it so you don’t have to wade through the details.

First, the authors looked at a variety of mask types:

Figure 1 JAMA Int Med

They also included N95 masks, which are known to be the most protective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus:

Figure 2 www.CardinalHealth.com

Here’s a quick rundown from the FDA on masks if you want some background info.

In the JAMA study, the investigators looked at a variety of masks and tested how good each mask was at filtering particles measuring 0.02-0.06 µm in size (for reference, SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus ≈0.1 μm in diameter).  They then made adjustments to improve the fit of each mask to see if that made a difference.  From the authors: “7 consumer-grade masks and 5 medical procedure mask modifications were fitted on an adult male volunteer, and FFE (Fitted Filtration Efficacy, or how effective the mask is at filtering particles based on the fit) measurements were collected during a series of repeated movements of the torso, head, and facial muscles as outlined by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration Quantitative Fit Testing Protocol.”

So they tested each type of mask on how effective it was in filtering particles 1/5 or less than the size of the virus particle at rest and also with different movements.

Here’s the different fit modifications the authors made:

Figure 3/ JAMA Int Med

Here’s how movement and fit affected the particle filtration:

Figure 4/ JAMA Int Med

And here is the effectiveness of each type of mask.

Figure 5/ JAMA Int Med

So as you can see, several different types of mask, especially if well-fitted, can provide very effective protection.  And clearly, N95s still provide the best protection.

Based on this, it’s good to see the Steelers players make the move to N95 masks to limit their risk of Covid-19 transmission.  As we’ve said since preseason, the team the limits roster losses and stays healthy will have a competitive advantage to make a deep playoff run.


“Melanie H. Friedlander, M.D., F.A.C.S. is a doctor at Association of South Bay Surgeons in Torrance, California. Dr. Friedlander enjoys all aspects of general surgery, but her primary areas of focus are breast surgery and advanced laparoscopic surgery. She recently adopted an advanced, minimally invasive technique that reduces scar size in thyroid surgery. Dr. Friedlander is a member of the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) and the Society of Laparoscopic Surgeons. She developed and published many scientific studies in highly esteemed medical journals.”

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