Baystate Health’s desperate hunt for n95 masks

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare centers have been fighting to obtain the supplies and protective equipment they need to work safely. While larger centers have been prioritized since their affluence of COVID-19 patients is higher, smaller centers like nursing homes, private practices, and dental offices have often been left with limited options.

The days in which supplies like the N95 masks were easily found for sale to buy in bulk and wholesale online by any regular person are long gone. Shortages have been affecting every healthcare center in the country, and Baystate Health told their personal story of N95 mask hunting to the New York Times this week. In this article, we'll talk about the main points touched in that story, and why N95 masks are so important during the pandemic.

Baystate Health is a not-for-profit healthcare system that has 4 hospitals, 80 practices, and 25 laboratories across the United States. They’re based in Springfield, Massachusetts, being one of the state’s major employers with over 12,000 employers. They’ve recently been on the hunt for N95 masks amid the new surge of COVID-19 cases that is approaching the country, as reported by the New York Times.

Inside their in-depth article published this week, the magazine described how Baystate Health started to run out of these disposable face masks, being forced to turn to new and unproven suppliers. This comes as the result of a collapsing supply chain and competition from the federal government when the pandemic reached a peak during the spring of this year. 

As described by the magazine, Dr. Andrew W. Artenstein, head of the command center for COVID-19 in Baystate Health, as well as other administrators, made extensive efforts to obtain N95 masks and other items inside the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare providers. The federal government, on the other hand, lacked preparation and coordination, leaving the more local healthcare centers in the dark when it came to N95 masks.

In April, Dr. Artenstein detailed in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine his story as an administrator who typically doesn’t find himself involved in the activities of the supply chain. He reported how deals with suppliers would dissolve out of the blue when they were outbid by other demanders, sometimes being the federal government.

There was an instance in which a shipment was confirmed by the FBI to not be part of the black market, and it was discovered by Artentstein that there were considerations by the Department of Homeland Security to redirect these masks for federal use. About all this, Artenstein said to the New York Times: “Did I foresee, as a health-system leader working in a rich, highly developed country with state-of-the-art science and technology and incredible talent, that my organization would ever be faced with such a set of circumstances? Of course not. This is the unfortunate reality we face in the time of COVID-19.”

Why are N95 masks so important for healthcare centers right now?

COVID-19 is a new respiratory disease recently discovered at the end of last year. Since the first case was reported, it has already turned into a pandemic, affecting the majority of the countries around the world. The virus responsible for the disease is an airborne particle, which means it has a size of 0.3 micrometers, and is spread through droplets or sprays of respiratory fluids released by infected people when they sneeze, cough, or talk.

The virus can cause anywhere from an asymptomatic disease to a very severe one. The severity is highly linked to the person’s age and the presence of certain risk factors, like immunocompromise, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Healthcare workers can have these risk factors as well, and since they’re in constant high exposure to the virus, they need extra protection against it.

N95 masks are respirators according to the classification for respirators established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This institution tests and certifies if a respirator meets the criteria for each type inside their classification, and this is considered to be the filtration standard inside the USA. Their classification is based on two characteristics:

  • First, the resistance to oil, indicated with a letter at the start of the respirator name, representing the ability of the respirator to filter out particles that contain oil. The letters are N for not resistant, R for somewhat resistant, and P for oil-proof.
  • Then comes the filtration rate, indicated with a number at the end of the respirator name. This is the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy, meaning how many airborne particles from the air the respirator can filter out. A respirator can have either 95, 99, or 100% efficacy.

Based on this, N95 masks can filter out at least 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles from the air the wearer is inhaling. Such particles include smoke, dust, and viruses like the flu. This makes N95 masks one of the best options for virus protection among the disposable face masks available, including surgical or medical masks, as well as among the reusable cloth masks on the market. In the United States, some of the most popular models are the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, both 3M N95 masks.  They can be worn with face shields for more protection, especially around the eyes.

N95 masks are often confused with KN95 masks, and even though they're not technically the same because the latter are regulated under the Chinese filtration standard, they're generally considered to be interchangeable. KN95 masks can be used as substitutes for N95 masks when these aren't available. 

Healthcare workers around the country are working tirelessly and sometimes without the proper protection to keep everybody safe. To help them out, everyone, including kids over the age of 2, has the responsibility to wear a face-covering, practice social distancing, and follow hygiene recommendations. Anyone who uses a face mask and follows the instructions given by the authorities is doing their part to help ease the workload of the workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

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