Why Was There a Shortage of N95 Respirators?

The governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, said a couple of weeks ago that Minnesota’s health care workers are at risk of protective equipment shortage if steps hadn’t been taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Medical personnel in Minnesota, as well as across the country, have reported facing shortages of vital N95 respirators, one of the most standard pieces of equipment that they need when interacting with infectious COVID-19 patients.

For that same reason, the governor urged everyone to maintain stay-at-home policies so they can build up a supply of masks before cases in the country peak.

How did Minnesota, as well as a couple of other governments around the world, face shortages of one of the most critical pieces of protective equipment?

What is an N95 respirator mask?

N95 respirator masks are respirators that fit the federal standards for protecting the wearer from inhaling acutely-released viral airborne particles such as viruses and bacteria.

When the respirator is put on correctly, and the mask fits tight, it provides the highest degree of protection (at least 95 percent) against viruses and bacteria in the air. Medical personnel are usually tested to make sure they know how to achieve a correct fit in which air does not leak out of the mask.

Many other face masks, such as surgical face masks, provide only barrier protection against droplets because they fit loosely around the face. Those masks may prevent contamination of the area around the wearer if the wearer sneezes or coughs.

But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that most surgical masks cannot effectively filter small particles from the air because they were not designed for this purpose, and therefore only serve to protect the outside world from the wearer and not the wearer from the outside world.

3M has a video online about how N95 respirators work and exactly how they compare to surgical masks.

Who makes them N95 respirators?

3M is a Maplewood-based company, a major manufacturer of N95 respirator masks.  The company has manufacturing plants nationwide, but they do research and development testing in Maplewood.

3M says it has nearly doubled its worldwide production since January, increasing their rates to almost 100 million N95 respirators per month.

In the U.S. the company said it has been producing up to 35 million respirators a month. As the virus has reached more people in the U.S., 3M has sent more than half a million respirators nationwide.

The company stated that it expects to double its production worldwide, reaching almost 2 billion masks in the next year. But many countries have limited or blocked the export of N95 masks and other equipment, keeping the protective equipment for their own healthcare workers and citizens.

How many respirators do we need? And how many do we have?

The exact number of masks in the United States is unclear, but at this point, it appears enough. But at one point, there was a great shortage, as medical staff were forced to reuse and sanitize masks they have already used.

Minnesota officials tasked with assessing the respirator supply and other protective equipment have concluded that protective masks and other equipment should be allocated to places that face shortages.

Robert Kadlec, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary, said in a testimony before a U.S. Senate committee that the country would need approximately 3.5 billion N95 masks to protect against a “severe” pandemic. But he also noted that the nation had only 35 million masks in its reserve. That’s only 1 percent of what he thought would be sufficient.

Experts at the CDC forecast back in 2015 that the country would need even more respirator masks. They said that it will be challenging to try to provide a sufficient number of respirators and surgical masks. Public health officials were urged to consider alternative use strategies for respirators and surgical masks during a pandemic.

How did we reach a shortage?

Because the U.S. relies heavily on imports of much of its supply of masks, gloves, and other protective equipment while countries started blocking the export of these masks and other equipment.

This offshore outsourcing of production resulted in a slowing of global supply chains, and the strategy of keeping inventories low came back to haunt most governments. The machines used to make N95 respirators are costly and in short supply in the U.S., yet the demand for the materials used to make them has increased vastly.

Where to buy N95 respirators and face masks?

If you’re looking to buy N-95 respirator face masks:

Browse Clinical Supplies USA’s collection of N95 respirators in our store here.


If you’re looking to purchase wholesale face masks for sale/distribution to your local community:

Reach out to us and inquire for any purchase above 2,000 units here.


Clinical Supplies USA is an American co-owned and run company specializing in providing quality protective supplies such as KN95 and 3ply masks, hand sanitizers, face shields, gloves, and more.


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