N95 masks are currently an extremely valuable item for healthcare facilities. They are disposable face masks considered the best type of virus protection for medical workers who are at much higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19. Before the pandemic, they were easily found for sale in both physical and online stores, and healthcare centers could buy them in bulk and wholesale. In fact, they didn’t need nearly as many as they do now.
Their antiviral properties are much higher than those in reusable cloth masks, and even in other disposable masks, like the surgical masks commonly used by healthcare workers. The last two can’t substitute the respirators mentioned for virus protection during the pandemic.
The name of this mask means that it’s not resistant to oil, as indicated by the ‘N’, and that it has a filtration efficacy of 95%. This is according to the classification of respirators established by a federal agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that regulates respirators inside the United States: NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). They do this to achieve their goal of helping workplaces across the USA prevent work-related diseases.
Respirators are used widely as personal protective equipment (PPE) in many different work industries which all have one thing in common: their workers are exposed to respiratory hazards. These are particles of various natures that can lead to the development of serious health conditions when inhaled, and respirators prevent this from happening by trapping them in the filter media they contain.
Particles that meet the characteristics of being non-oil-based and airborne, meaning they don’t contain oil and have a size as small as 0.3 micrometers, can be filtered by N95 masks. Such particles are very diverse and can be found in a wide variety of work settings, which is why these masks have a wide variety of uses. For example, they can be used by construction workers or miners, since they filter out dust, factory workers, since they filter out smoke, or healthcare workers, since they filter out viruses like the flu virus and the new coronavirus.
This has led to an incredible increase in their demand, along with that of other medical supplies, including gloves, gowns, surgical masks, face shields, and KN95 masks. The latter are a type of respirator that is often mistaken with N95 masks because of their similar names. KN95 masks are regulated by Chinese filtration standards, which are very similar to the one established by NIOSH. This is why KN95 masks are generally considered equivalent to N95 respirators and have been used in healthcare centers as their substitutes since they’re sometimes easier to obtain.
Washington has started distributing N95 masks from their stockpile in bulk shipments
As reported by the Seattle Times, healthcare facilities had spent months without any PPE (personal protective equipment) sent from the state’s N95 mask stockpile. They had to make use of what they had available, for example, both residents and staff members in long-term care homes had been wearing disposable face masks. By mid-November, the Washington stockpile of N95 masks had over 30 million of them, but they hardly made it to providers.
But, this changed during the last several months, since the state officials had been distributing millions of these respirators to long-term care facilities, prisons, emergency managers, and others. This comes after a report in the Seattle Times highlighted the state’s extensive surplus of N95 masks in November, as well as the pleas from advocates to distribute the masks.
According to the Times report, the bureaucratic maze prevented some providers from obtaining the masks, while others were reluctant to accept them because they were concerned about the state’s main N95 mask model fit.
A plan to distribute the masks was approved by the office and Department of Health officials of Governor Jay Inslee in November. The plan is based on the population sizes, distributing the masks for free to all counties and tribes. The shipments of this mask, according to the plan, began last week. Additionally, more than 1 million respirators were sent to the Department of Corrections after a huge wave of COVID-19 cases was experienced by them, and to the Department of Social and Health Services to then distribute them to care homes.
Over 6 million N95 respirators have been shipped over the last month as COVID-19 cases and deaths are increasing in both Washington and the rest of the United States. The stockpile is made almost entirely out of N95 masks manufactured by BYD, a Chinese multinational company known primarily for their automotive subsidiary, BYD Auto. They converted some car interior production lines into production lines for medical supplies, and the state paid the company almost $100 million for it.
The reason for these masks to pile up was because hospitals were hesitant to obtain them, as well as the strict distribution rules set by the state. For example, facilities like long-term care homes could only receive these masks coming from the stockpile in the case they had any active COVID-19 cases inside the facility, and their PPE was almost depleted.
Some hospitals didn’t overlook the BYD N95 respirators. For example, the Virginia Mason Memorial in Yakima received 500,000 N95 masks from the state in November.
Even 3M N95 masks have been scarce during this pandemic, including models like the 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860. This is why the CDC encourages the general public to wear reusable cloth masks and leave medical-grade equipment to the frontline workers, including kids above the age of 2.