ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- An advisory panel is recommending a major step up in protection for health workers dealing with patients suspected or confirmed to have H1N1 influenza.
One expert says that based on current knowledge, N95 respirators offer health workers the best protection.
The Institute of Medicine said Thursday, in recommendations requested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that loose paper masks are inadequate because the workers could still breathe in the virus.
Instead, health workers should switch to N95 respirators that form an airtight seal around the nose and mouth.
If properly fitted and worn correctly, N95 respirators filter out at least 95 percent of particles as small as 0.3 micrometers, which is smaller than influenza viruses, the report notes.
The institute provides independent, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, private entities and the public. It is one of four groups that make up the National Academies.
"Scientists do not know to what extent flu viruses spread through the air or whether infection requires physical contact with contaminated fluids or surfaces," a summary of the report says.
It calls for "a boost in research to answer these questions and to design and develop better protective equipment that would enhance workers' comfort, safety and ability to do their jobs."
"Based on what we currently know about influenza, well-fitted N95 respirators offer health care workers the best protection against inhalation of viral particles," said committee chairman Kenneth Shine, executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a former president of the institute.
"But there is a lot we still don't know about these viruses, and it would be a mistake for anyone to rely on respirators alone as some sort of magic shield."
Health care workers should use several strategies to guard against infection, such as innovative triage processes, washing hands, disinfecting, wearing gloves, getting vaccinated and using antiviral drugs, Shine said.
The institute was asked specifically to evaluate personal protective equipment designed to guard against respiratory infection, and therefore the committee focused on the efficacy of medical masks and respirators.