N95 masks are disposable face masks designed to fit closely to the face and efficiently filtrate at least 95% of airborne particles. These respirators need to be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used as medical equipment.
The imminent danger of a shortage of N95 masks amid the pandemic
In the beginning, when the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the United States, the question that was concerning experts in the medical field as if there would be enough supplies and personal protection equipment to ensure the protection of the health care workers.
In March, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a statement that alarmed many, especially those who would be in the frontline. They estimated that the US would need about 3.5 billion N95 masks over a year to face the pandemic. However, the Strategic National Stockpile had a supply of approximately 42 million N95 masks.
This number meant that the US only had around 1% of the supplies that were estimated to be needed for the pandemic. The World Health Organization urged manufacturers early on to increase the production of these medical supplies to avoid shortages, which were already happening in other parts of the world.
The US House and Senate reached a deal quickly to provide around $8.3 billion from emergency funds to fight the pandemic, of which $1 billion was destined for medical supplies and PPE.
In April, the Trump administration decided to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA), a law that has been used in several other situations like natural disasters and wars. The DPA gives the government authorization for directing private companies to prioritize the national supply of certain products. In this case, the law would apply to medical supplies and equipment manufacturers, of which 3M is probably America’s most important one.
However, after months since the DPA was invoked, experts say this measure was taken too late into the crisis, and that the production wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs for N95 masks in the US. Shortages had already been started in some states, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) urged workers of other industries to use other types of equipment other than N95 masks to ensure the supply for health care workers.
Durability and reuse of N95 masks
One of President Trump's most controversial statements was made back in April, when he said that sterilization processes could be done to N95 masks to reuse them and prolong their durability. These statements were met with negativity and were quickly discarded by experts.
These remarks can’t be deemed entirely untrue. Traditionally, N95 masks are disposable face masks with a set lifespan of 8-12 hours and are intended to be used once and then be discarded properly. N95 ‘reuse’ is a practice that has been done for years in the medical field, but it has some rules and limitations.
The CDC defines ‘reuse’ as “the practice of using the same N95 respirator for multiple encounters with patients but removing it ('doffing') after each encounter. The respirator is stored in between encounters to be put on again ('donned') before the next encounter with a patient”.
Reuse of the N95 respirator must be done always by the same worker and as long as the equipment remains functional. The CDC has a complete guide for this 'limited reuse' of the N95 mask, including also a different strategy called ‘extended use’.
This is defined as “the practice of wearing the same N95 respirator for repeated close contact encounters with several patients, without removing the respirator between patient encounters”. They recommend this practice for attending several patients with the same respiratory disease.
Overall, the CDC recommends extended use over limited reuse of the N95 mask as a strategy for conserving supplies of this equipment. This is because extended use involves less contact with the masks, therefore less risk of contamination.
So, under certain regulations and rules, N95 masks can be reused by health care workers. Results from cleaning or sterilization processes have yet to be defined entirely, but many studies are being done in this regard.
Where are we now
The FDA stated in June that “increased use may exceed the available supply of PPE, resulting in shortages at some healthcare organizations”. That’s why they came out with some conservation strategies to avoid these possible shortages. On top of this, the CDC has not recommended the use of this equipment by the general public, to ensure health care workers can be protected amid the imminent shortages.
The DPA has dramatically increased the supply of N95 masks in the US, predominantly by prioritizing domestic production. 3M has stated that they are on track to meet with the nation’s needs, and important shortages haven’t happened, but we are still waiting to see if they will be a problem for the health care system in the future.
We would like to end this informative article urging our readers to stay safe. Take care of your family, your kids, and your community, by protecting yourself. Our health care workers are needing supplies, and online shops have excellent prices for N95 masks for sale. It’s easy to make a donation or to buy some for your friends and family in the medical field, be it surgical or dental masks, or N95 respirators, they will need it.