What are they
N95 respirator masks — commonly referred to as N95 masks — prevent harmful particles from being inhaled or expelled, and seal to a wearer’s face. They are used in industrial settings as well as hospitals and are certified to meet specific health guidelines, including the ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. They are secured by two head bands and often contain a special filter material called meltblown textile.
How they’re used
N95 masks certified for medical use are considered the gold standard for protection against the COVID-19 virus. They are meant to be worn by medical providers and frontline healthcare workers who are exposed to infected patients. Prior to the pandemic, N95 masks were thrown away after each use. Drastic shortages prompted guideline changes and today they are frequently sterilized and reused. Repeated sterilization and reuse often degrades the structural integrity of the mask.
What went wrong
In March, exports of N95s to the U.S. from China plummeted. Meanwhile, government stockpiles were depleted from a flu outbreak a decade earlier, and there was no way to rapidly restock. Without the medical supplies needed to stop the spread, the country plunged into crisis mode. The federal government advised people not to wear masks, in a bid to conserve N95 masks for medical workers. Counterfeits flooded the market, as did fake cures.
What’s at stake
N95 masks are instrumental in stopping the spread of the virus. In well-stocked hospitals in the Netherlands, masks largely prevented health care workers from being infected by COVID-19 patients. In a series of U.S. nursing homes and hospitals, doctors and nurses were infected by patients, and inadvertently spread the virus further. Without adequate supply, they could not protect themselves or those with whom they came into contact.
“This is deplorable. You know, when you stop and think that we send soldiers into battle with the equipment that they need… Yet we were asking nurses to do the exact same thing, but without the equipment that they needed.”
Ernest Grant, the president of the American Nurses Association
White House officials say U.S. hospitals have all the medical supplies needed to battle the deadly virus, but frontline healthcare workers, hospital officials and even the Food and Drug Administration say critical shortfalls of N95s persist. That’s because a key N95 ingredient — meltblown textile — remains in very short supply. Manufacturers say the Trump administration hasn’t made the long-term investments they need to ramp up to full capacity. Meanwhile, the administration allowed meltblown exports to slip out of the country as the pandemic, and the demand for masks, soared.