COVID-19 is a new respiratory illness that was discovered at the end of 2019 with the first cases being reported. Nearly a year later, it has caused a pandemic in which many things have changed around us. One of the fields that got the most affected was the healthcare one, with doctors, nurses, and other medical workers exposing themselves daily to the virus to treat patients that were severely affected.
This respiratory infectious disease is spread when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes, releasing droplets containing the virus into the air. When an uninfected person inhales them, the virus replicates inside their airways and start damaging the lungs. The severity of this disease ranges from asymptomatic cases to lethal ones, with many patients needing the help of a mechanical ventilator to breathe properly.
People at higher risk of developing a more severe form of the disease include older people, those with comorbidities like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, immunocompromised patients, and obese people. The least affected people are younger people and kids, and while the size of the percentage of severe cases is not the majority, the healthcare system has become overwhelmed and collapse when cases increase.
N95 masks have been the most valuable item for virus protection in healthcare workers, but lately, they’ve been difficult to find for sale online, with hospitals struggling to buy them in bulk or wholesale. In this article, we’ll explain why these masks are so valuable, and which states in the United States have stockpiles of the respiratory and other personal protective equipment.
Understanding N95 masks
N95 masks are a type of respirator according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, mostly known by their acronym NIOSH. It’s been used during the pandemic because of its excellent antiviral properties that make them the preferred face mask for virus protection in healthcare settings. These situations represent a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, especially when treating confirmed cases, so the surgical masks we usually see being used by doctors or nurses are not enough protection.
NIOSH is a federal agency that was created in 1970 as a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the mission of providing scientific-based information and recommendations to the workplaces across the United States to prevent work-related injuries or illnesses. To achieve this goal, they also have a classification for respirators that manufacturers in the USA use as a guide to produce respirators.
Respirators are important in a wide variety of work environments because some of them can represent exposure to respiratory hazards. These are particles that can damage the airways when they’re inhaled, so respirators are effective by filtering them out and preventing the user from inhaling them.
The NIOSH classification for respirators takes into account two properties: resistance to oil, indicated with a letter at the beginning of the name, and the filtration rate, indicated with a number on the final half of the name. In N95 masks, the ‘N’ means they have no oil resistance, which means they can’t filter out oil-based particles, and the ‘95’ means they can filter out 95% of the airborne particles in the air as a minimum.
So, N95 respirators are only effective for particles without oil molecules in them that are airborne, meaning they have a size as small as 0.3 microns and can travel through the air easily. Particles that meet these characteristics are very varied and can be found in a wide variety of work settings. Some examples include dust, smoke, pollen, metals, and viruses like the flu or the novel coronavirus.
In healthcare settings, they’re often paired with face shields or goggles to protect the eyes as well, since the virus can also be absorbed through the eyes. Sometimes they can be substituted by KN95 masks, which are their equivalents under Chinese filtration standards. Some of the most popular models are the 3M N95 masks in the models 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860.
Which states have stockpile N95 masks and PPE?
Since the pandemic began earlier in the year, shortages of the most used medical supplies were expected, and before they hit the USA, they were already seen in other countries around the world. Although the USA tried to prevent this from happening, with major efforts being done by companies like Honeywell or 3M, the production hasn’t been able to match the enormous demand for this item.
In the struggle to obtain N95 masks, large hospitals have been stockpiling during the summer in preparation for another increase in COVID-19 cases during the fall, which we’re already seeing turn into a reality. Certain states had stockpiling laws and orders, including California, Connecticut, and New York. In these states, hospitals had to have a certain amount of PPE stockpiled, or else they would face fines.
For example, in California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in September in which hospitals would have to have three months worth of PPE stockpiled or they would be fined for $25,000.
Washington has recently started distributing N95 masks from their state stockpile, which was reportedly made up of 30 million N95 respirators. They began making bulk shipments to prisons and hospitals across the state, while smaller facilities like long-term care homes only qualified to obtain them if there was a reported active COVID-19 case and their supplies were nearly depleted.
The CDC recommends the general public to reserve all these medical supplies, particularly N95 masks, for healthcare workers. They can instead use reusable cloth masks combined with social distancing, including kids over the age of 2 with masks in the corresponding size.