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Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

By April 2, 2020September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Carolyn Bishoff, Jonathan Koffel, Alicia Kubas, and Lindsay Matts-Benson

Personal Protective Equipment: Masks

Medical grade masks. Image source: Public Health Image Library.

As the global cases of COVID-19 virus climb past the 700,000 mark, the term “PPE” or personal protective equipment has been heard from governors, the president, health officials, and others as they address the nation in how we can all come together to battle the spread of this virus.

However, there is conflicting information and guidance on what exactly qualifies as PPE and what can serve as a stand-in for PPE during a shortage.

In preparing for a shortage, many individuals and maker communities are interested in sharing designs and creating homemade cloth and 3D-printed masks and face shields. As an initial step, it is important to first understand more about PPE, what makes it effective against germs, and who needs to use PPE. Read on to explore reputable sources and information about PPE.

What is personal protective equipment (PPE)?

PPE: “[p]ersonal protective equipment is special equipment you wear to create a barrier between you and germs. This barrier reduces the chance of touching, being exposed to, and spreading germs” (MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine).

For in-depth information about how PPE protects against infection, guidelines for manufacturers, and other specific questions about PPE, see the Food and Drug Administration’s frequently asked questions about PPE.

PPE for health care providers and the general public

PPE is needed most by health care personnel as they care for those who have contracted COVID-19 and for those patients seeking medical attention due to COVID-19-like symptoms or a confirmed COVID infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Masks are not necessary unless you are trying to prevent transmission from yourself to other people, and thus the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does NOT currently recommend that the general public use face masks. Instead, the CDC encourages you to wash your hands, cover your cough, and stay home when you are sick. Recently, however, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said April 1 that he has asked the CDC to investigate whether this recommendation should change. Continue monitoring the CDC website for up-to-date recommendations.

If you do need to use a mask because of transmission concerns, follow the World Health Organization guidelines for safe mask use. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has strict standards and regulations on masks and respirators for use in healthcare settings and best practices for proper use. If you need a mask, follow hygiene recommendations regardless of what type of mask you use.

To most effectively protect health care personnel, properly manufactured masks and respirators are preferred. The FDA has an FAQ page that addresses questions about how 3D printing might be used to address medical equipment shortages. In the case of a shortage, the CDC does allow for hospital use of homemade face masks in crisis situations as a “last resort” when no face masks are available and all other options have been exhausted.

Staying informed

With any current issue, it is important to take some time to learn about a topic and investigate those sources of information. Find more than one source on a topic. If you find a lot of resources pointing to one specific source, trace those sources to the original source of the claim.  This method is called SIFT (Stop. Investigate, Find better/other sources and Trace claims to the original context).

The SIFT method can help you from succumbing to confirmation bias, where you find yourself reading anything looking to support a position you already hold strongly.

Latest research and guidelines on PPE & COVID-19

Factory-made and homemade PPE donations for health care providers

If you wish to donate PPE to a health care organization, it is essential to follow the directives of your local hospital in providing only what they need and ask for because hospitals cannot afford to be overloaded with homemade supplies that they will not use. See below for some Minneapolis-St. Paul area and greater Minnesota organizations asking for donations of medical grade PPE and/or homemade masks.

University of Minnesota resources

Other ways to contribute

About the authors

  • Carolyn Bishoff is the Innovation Lead and Science Librarian at the University Libraries and runs the Toaster Innovation Hub Breakerspace.
  • Jonathan Koffel is the Emerging Technology and Innovation Strategist at the UMN Health Sciences Library.
  • Alicia Kubas is the Government Publications and Data Librarian and the editor for the “A Matter of Facts” blog.
  • Lindsay Matts-Benson is the Instructional Designer for the University Libraries and teaches on information literacy and the SIFT method.


Online health information should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content in this article is for general information only.

Talk to your doctor about information you read online and how it relates to your health plan. Boynton Health clinics are open to U of M faculty, staff, and students.

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

More posts by Mark Engebretson

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