The pandemic that has been going on since the beginning of the year is caused by a respiratory virus called the SARS-CoV-2. This virus is a new species of coronavirus that was previously unknown to scientists, and while other coronaviruses infect the respiratory tract as well, this new species seems to be more lethal than them.
COVID-19 is a disease that can be anywhere between asymptomatic to lethal depending on the group of people it affects. The best way to prevent the spread of the virus has been by wearing face masks, but some of them are more effective than others. While the general public is urged to wear cloth masks, people in riskier situations of exposure, like healthcare workers, need the best face masks for virus protection.
N95 masks are the recommended masks for healthcare providers, but they’ve been scarce since the pandemic began. In this article, we’ll discuss how the new surge of COVID-19 caused a shortage of these valuable face masks.
N95 masks: why are they so important?
Considered to be the best disposable face mask available today for virus protection during the coronavirus pandemic, N95 masks offer better antiviral properties than those found in other popular face masks, like surgical, medical, or reusable cloth masks, with or without pairing them with face shields. They’ve been widely sought out for healthcare workers, and some of the most popular ones around the world and in the United States are 3M N95 masks, with models like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 standing out.
A lot of people have the same question when they hear about these face masks: what does ‘N95’ mean? The term comes from a classification of respirators used as the standards inside the USA. This is established by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in charge of regulating and testing respirators to make sure they meet the criteria for each class described inside their classification.
This comes as part of their goal to prevent work-related illnesses and injuries through research and information. Respirators are crucial in the PPE of many work fields, and particularly today are important for the PPE of healthcare workers with the coronavirus pandemic. The new virus is considered a respiratory hazard, and these respirators can help prevent the infection in people during high-risk situations, like the ones healthcare workers find themselves in daily.
The NIOSH classification takes into account the filtration rate and resistance to oil of the respirator, with 3 different possibilities for each one of them, leaving nine possible respirator types. This is why you may read about P95, N99, or R100 respirators as well. The term ‘N95’ means that the respirator has no resistance to oil and that it has a minimum particulate filtration efficacy of 95%. This makes them effective for protecting the user from non-oil based particles, which include smoke and dust particles, but also pathogens like the flu virus or the SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
For an N95 mask to be manufactured and distributed as such, they need to be approved by NIOSH to certify they meet the standards to be considered an N95 respirator. Without this approval, there’s no guarantee that the respirator works the way it’s supposed to, and therefore can’t be considered N95. For N95 masks manufactured for medical purposes, approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also needed, even though with the pandemic emergency, they’ve granted Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) to many mask models that were previously not approved by them.
Some of those face masks include KN95 masks, the equivalent to the N95 respirators that are regulated under the Chinese standards for respirator filtration. Even though there are minor differences between these standards, they’re generally considered to be interchangeable, and KN95 masks can be used in replacement of N95 masks when these are not available during emergencies, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Surge of COVID-19 and the shortages that will come with it
A COVID-19 surge was predicted to happen during the fall of this year, with the flu season also merging with this lethal respiratory virus. The biggest concern for healthcare centers as the cases increase is the shortages of all types of PPE that are already being reported across the nation, particularly of N95 masks. The amount of PPE in healthcare centers is way below the levels recommended by experts, despite their efforts to build stockpiles. The increase of cases is making this effort difficult, slowing it down as the cases increase.
The Chief Executive from 3M, Mike Roman, told the Wall Street Journal that the demand for these face masks was simply too high, and their supply can’t meet these demands, expecting shortages to continue until 2021. The company, one of the biggest and most important manufacturers of PPE and N95 masks, in particular, is on track to reach the goal of producing 100 million N95 masks per month inside the United States this year, four times their production before the pandemic. However, despite this enormous effort, the demand still surpasses their production capacity. Honeywell International and other big companies are producing a minimum of 20 million N95 respirators per month inside the country.
N95 respirators need to be reserved for healthcare workers and other essential workers on the frontlines. For this reason, we urge our readers to protect themselves with the other alternatives available for sale online, with options for kids in a smaller size, and to buy in bulk or wholesale as well. Remember that anyone who uses a face-covering is protecting not only themselves but those around them as well.