Before the COVID-19 pandemic, items like the N95 mask were easily found for sale online, and regular people could buy them in bulk and wholesale without a problem. Now, with the devastating effects of the virus in the United States, this item has become scarce, and it’s one of the crucial parts of the personal protective equipment (PPE) used by doctors and other healthcare providers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
N95 masks are now highly coveted and valuable products, and hospitals and other smaller healthcare centers are fighting every day to get their hands on them. Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things, and the market for N95 masks is one of them. Let's analyze this a little further in this article.
N95 masks are respirators according to the classification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH. This institution is a federal agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), created to make recommendations to work settings across the USA, which are based on scientific research, that can help prevent potential injuries or illnesses related or originated in the workplace.
As part of their job, they offer information about respirators, and they classify them in their filtration rate classification. This is considered the standard for rating respirators inside the United States, and NIOSH tests and certifies that each respirator manufactured does meet the requirements for the respirator type it's intended to be.
Respirators are an important part of the PPE in many work settings in which respiratory hazards are present. These are particles that can be harmful to the worker’s health if they inhaled them chronically or acutely. Work settings with such particles include a wide variety, like construction or mining sites, in which particles like dust or smoke are present.
The NIOSH classification for respirators is based on two characteristics that are used to name respirators:
- Resistance to oil: the resistance the respirator has to particles that contain oil is directly proportional and representative of how well it can filter them out from the air. To indicate this in the name, NIOSH assigned a letter for each of the three alternatives to this characteristic: N means not resistant, R means resistant, and P means oil-proof.
- Filtration efficacy: also known as the filtration rate, this is the second part of the name. It’s represented by the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy, which tells us the number of airborne particles (those with a diameter of 0.3 micrometers) the respirator can effectively filter out from the air. The percentage can be either 95, 99, or 100%, and it’s indicated with the corresponding number in the name.
According to the NIOSH classification, N95 respirators are face masks that aren't resistant to oil and have a filtration rate of 95% of the airborne particles in the air. This means they are effective for non-oil-based particles, like dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu or the virus responsible for COVID-19, and they can filter out at least 95% of them from the air the wearer is breathing.
For this reason, N95 respirators have been widely used in healthcare centers across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they’re considered the best option for virus protection due to higher antiviral properties than those found in other disposable face masks, like surgical masks, or reusable ones, like the homemade cloth masks. The 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 models are 3M N95 masks that are highly popular around the world.
But, due to the high scarcity and need for these masks, healthcare centers have been pushed to try alternatives. For example, KN95 masks are respirators regulated under different filtration standards than N95 masks, but are considered to be equivalent to them, and have been cleared to be used in emergencies where N95 masks aren’t available. N95 masks can also be used with face shields to increase their protective properties.
To understand why the masks are so valuable, it’s important to point out that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a new virus called the SARS-CoV-2. This pathogen is an airborne particle that doesn’t contain any oil, and therefore N95 masks can effectively filter them out. They are spread through droplets or sprays of fluids released to the environment when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes.
This disease can be extremely dangerous to certain groups of people, like older people or immunocompromised patients, and therefore stopping the spread is the main focus right now. Healthcare providers are in constant exposure to this virus, and while other types of face masks are effective and recommended for daily use by regular people, this high exposure to the pathogen calls for more effective face masks, like the N95 respirators.
N95 masks, before the pandemic, weren’t such a high necessity around the world, and particularly not for healthcare workers. Now, companies like 3M have doubled their production to meet the demand for this respirator, and it’s still not enough. N95 masks have also increased their price significantly, due to their high value and scarcity.
While our healthcare workers are fighting every day to keep us safe, with limited supplies and PPE, it's our responsibility to help them out the best way we can: staying safe and protected to stop the spread of the disease. With too many cases at once, healthcare centers start to collapse, putting the lives of these professionals at risk as well.
Everyone, including kids over the age of 2 with face masks in a smaller size, should wear any type of face-covering available to them, leaving medical-grade masks to workers on the frontlines. Anyone who follows the recommendations for virus control is doing their part during this difficult time.