The US is distributing free N95 masks. Here's how to use one and when to toss it.

Two years into the pandemic, with omicron cases surging, Cat Buchanan, has decided a basic mask no longer cuts it.

"It seems like everyone has it now, even if you are staying in, you're somehow getting it," Buchanan says. "I have 5 friends right now that have it, and they haven't had COVID at all, and they're double vaxxed and boosted."

So, the 30-year-old graphic designer from Atlanta's Little Five Points community now wears KN95 masks she orders online, which are designed to filter out up to 95% of the particles in the air.

"I do not wear them when I'm outdoors around people, but I do wear them indoors," Buchanan says. "I feel safe still going places as long as I have my mask on."

Grady Hospital's Dr. Neil Winawer has been working in an N95 mask for more than two years, and he says there are some tricks to wearing one, starting with putting it on.


First he says, be careful how you handle the mask.

"If the mask is completely if it has never been used before, is not contaminated, then you can palm and grab the mask like this," he says, grabbing the front of the mask. "If it has been used before, I would hold the edges of it."

The masks have two straps, and Winawer puts the top strap over his head first.

"The top end goes on first like that, over the ear," he says.  'Then, then the bottom, you pull down, and the bottom goes over and back down. And I don't know if you can see, but the top is up here and the bottom is here. And taking it off, just in reverse order.

Winawer says you want a nice, tight fit.

"Make sure that the metal strip here is pinched down over you nose, so that you're creating a good seal," he says. "And then you can breathe in and breathe out to reveal whether any air is escaping, because that's the most common this I see, when people put this on incorrectly. They don't pinch the nose, they don't make a good seal over the nose, and then you can get a leak."


How long you can wear the mask, Winawer says, depends on how you are using it.

He says most healthcare workers wear their N95s for up to 40 hours, or 5 shifts, before discarding the mask.

"So, for a person who is just wearing it when the grocery shopping, for example, or they're on a flight, I don't think they need to really worry about time constraints," Winawer says.

You can steam-clean your mask, either in the microwave or by using a pot of water, Winawer says.

The easiest option, he says, maybe to air dry the mask overnight in a paper bag, letting it sit for 24 hours between uses.

Toss your mask if it becomes soiled, bent out of shape, or loses its seal.

The bottom line, Winawer says, is find a mask that offers the best protection but is also comfortable enough for you to keep on when you are in indoor, crowded settings.

"Wear the best mask you possibly can when you're around other people, because that's going to keep you most protected," he says.