The N95 mask is an invaluable line of protection against the novel coronavirus for health care personnel. These highly protective respirators will prevent patients from infecting doctors and nurses, but the world quickly runs out of them. Although countries around the world are struggling to find stocks of N95s and produce more of the much-coveted masks, how this shortage can resolve itself is uncertain.
In the United States, the situation is increasingly dire. President Trump invoked the Defense Development Act on April 2 to force 3M, one of the only companies in the US making N95 masks, to scale up development. The White House was pushed by many, including Democratic presidential primary candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, to use the DPA more effectively to cope with shortages of medical supplies. The president later said in a tweet that for exporting masks, 3M will have a huge price to pay.
3M fought back against threats from Trump. The company stressed in a statement on Friday that it had received permission to bring 10 million masks from China. 3M also notified the order by the White House to stop its N95 respirator exports, citing the humanitarian consequences of stopping the supply of respirators to health care workers in Canada and Latin America. The US might quickly end up with fewer masks than it had before the DPA order if other countries retaliated by not exchanging supplies, 3M argued.
The shortage of N95 masks in the U.S. is not so great, considering the rise in global demand, that corporations, unions, and individuals have been scrambling to fill the need by searching for stocks of existing masks and searching for alternative suppliers. Another issue is that many of these respirators are ending up in a very lawless grey market, including those manufactured by 3M, where they are subject to hoarding and price gouging.
Federal agencies are also working hard to track down stashes of this urgently needed personal protection product and redistribute what they find to health care staff.
Health care staff around the country are planning for a storm, with more than 175 reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. and many more anticipated in the coming weeks and months. But even the planning is a challenge: hospitals, like N95 masks, are still struggling with a global shortage of personal protective equipment. N95s are respirators that, when used properly, can filter out 95 percent of airborne particles that can carry a virus such as SARS-CoV-2, which triggers COVID-19, unlike flimsy surgical masks intended to shield individuals from the wearer. To prevent viruses from spreading within hospitals, doctors and nurses rely on N95s, but a major disruption in supply chains and an unprecedented market run on the masks have occurred over the past two months. Today, several manufacturers are telling hospitals that in the coming months, deliveries of the masks can not be assured.
China manufactured about half of the world's sanitary masks and 90 percent of the surgical masks in the United States before the outbreak. With the coronavirus-ravaged province of Hubei, producers in the United States, Europe, and Japan are struggling to satisfy global demand.
Thanks to a strict need-based allocation strategy that the company introduced in early January, Dealmed is one of the few distributors in New York that still has a small supply of N95 masks. As a result, Einhorn is now receiving calls from managers of hospitals jockeying for supplies.
Hundreds of calls and emails are also overwhelming Dynarex, a protective equipment manufacturer based in Orangeburg, New York. It's not just local health care providers trying to stock up; many of the demands come from China's hospitals and employers desperate for supplies, as well as from international businesses searching for gowns, masks, and gloves.
Disruption of the supply-chain is not the only element depleting reserves. In New York, concerned shoppers at community pharmacies, Duane Reades, and Home Depots have picked up shelves. Since early February, almost every store has been sold out. Amazon and Walmart are largely sold out as well.
Experts usually accept that in the group, N95 masks have little importance. The effectiveness of the mask relies on fit, environmental factors such as airflow, and how someone treats it. The average individual can not gain at all without proper preparation.
Last month, electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which produces the Apple iPhone, began manufacturing masks in a factory in China, as did other carmakers who converted production lines with the hope of producing 5 million masks a day. Where over 300 million masks were needed to store, the Trump administration contracted 3M to manufacture 30 million masks in the United States. Reuters has recently stated that the administration is considering using special powers to increase production rapidly.
Wear Any Mask Instead of Wearing No Mask
Although the handmade versions do not follow the N95 designation, the gifts can still provide some layer of security for medical personnel.
The 'N95' mask blocks at least 95% of tiny test particles, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has added that an N95 mask does not completely remove the risk of illness or death even when properly fitted.
Small businesses and associations are also joining the drive to ease demand by crafting and donating handmade masks to healthcare professionals in many states.
In Arizona, a nonprofit in Flagstaff is using surgical fabric for new masks recycled by the Medical Center. A tiny Gilbert company, My Little Handmade Store, began making masks and giving them away for free after local healthcare workers complained that masks were not given because they were not deemed "at-risk" and after the shop owner learned that bandanas were instead worn by doctors in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Staff.