Why can’t America make enough N95 masks?

With the coronavirus pandemic going on for over eight months, N95 masks have become a scarce and valuable product necessary for the workers on the frontlines. They’re the most effective face mask for virus protection, and people were buying them in bulk and wholesale at the beginning of the year, mainly through online stores.

Now, the general public has limited access to them, because they are required by healthcare providers, and there aren’t enough of them. At the beginning of the year, during the spring, a first shortage was devastating for the United States. Now, during the fall, a surge in coronavirus cases is threatening to cause a second wave of shortages as well. In this article, we’ll discuss N95 masks and their importance, and why it’s so difficult to catch up with the demands for these face masks, as well as the devastating effects these shortages come with.

N95 masks

N95 masks are the best disposable face masks for virus protection during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the most popular and widely used face masks, they offer the most antiviral properties, including surgical, medical, and reusable cloth masks. For this reason, they’re prioritized for healthcare workers and other essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic in the United States. The most popular models are the 3M N95 masks, with models like 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 being bought in bulk or wholesale online since the beginning of the pandemic.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, has a classification for respirators, used in the USA as the standard for filtration in respirators. The term ‘N95’ comes from this classification, and NIOSH is in charge of testing and making sure each respirator meets the criteria to be considered as each respirator type inside their classification.

This is important because respirators are crucial parts of the PPE in many industries where respiratory hazards are present. These are harmful particles that could lead to serious health issues when inhaled. So, workers in these situations use respirators because they are masks or mask-like devices that contain a filtering media that traps these particles, preventing the wearer from inhaling them.

Inside the NIOSH classification, which takes into consideration the oil resistance and the filtration rate to name each respirator type, N95 masks refers to any respirator without resistance to oil and with a percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy of 95%. This means they’re effective to protect workers against particles like smoke, dust, or viruses like the flu or the coronavirus.

Any respirator manufactured and intended to be distributed as N95 needs to be approved by NIOSH. Otherwise, the respirator isn’t considered legitimate, and the worker can’t be 100% sure that it meets the criteria to be an N95 mask. If the respirator is intended to be used as medical PPE specifically, it will need approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) too. But, with the healthcare crisis that has come from the pandemic, the FDA has granted Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) to many respirator models previously unapproved by them.

KN95 masks, the equivalents to N95 respirators under the Chinese standards, are often confused with the N95 masks. Even though they’re technically not the same, they’re usually considered to be interchangeable, and many KN95 mask models have received EUAs from the FDA during the pandemic.

Shortages and why they happen in America

Before the pandemic was declared, shortages of medical PPE were expected to happen all over the world, including the United States. The Trump administration began taking measures like the Defense Production Act (DPA) around April, when they noticed the emergency stockpile for N95 respirators was only around 1% of the necessary quantity to face the pandemic.

Despite the efforts from big companies like 3M and Honeywell International, which ramped the production of this item and prioritized the supply of the USA above all else, shortages happened. The spring was a difficult time for healthcare workers who were working with what they had, practicing limited reuse and extended use of the respirators under the guidelines of the CDC.

The raw material needed to make the masks, the fabric known as “melt-blown material” is very scarce at the moment, making it difficult to meet the demands of the pandemic. The factories that make this material are limited, and creating new lines of production is a process that could take years because of the expensive price and the difficulty it is to make it.

Now, the fall is predicted to come with a new surge in COVID-19 cases, and with the flu season also happening, healthcare centers are in danger of becoming overwhelmed and collapsing. Many of them are still reporting shortages of PPE, but N95 respirators in particular are scarce. The levels of PPE, according to experts, are below the recommended ones, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The efforts to build stockpiles in many states is becoming difficult with the increase in coronavirus cases, slowing down these efforts.

Without a doubt, the most affected centers are the smaller ones, like dental offices, nursing homes, and private doctor offices as well. Last Wednesday, the United States experienced an all-time-high of coronavirus cases with more than 100,000 new cases in 24 hours, and the shortages are expected to become more pronounced as the cases increase, especially in those smaller medical practices.

Remember that anyone who uses any type of face-covering, including kids with face masks in a smaller size, is helping their community to stop the spread of this virus that can be lethal to certain people. There are plenty of options for sale, so let’s all do our part and keep the most vulnerable safe during these trying times.

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