Post #955: More people saying “get a better mask”.

Posted on January 16, 2021

This might be a case of finding what I’m looking for.   But I seem to be seeing more mentions in minstream media regarding the need to wear N95 masks (respirators).  In particular, I see more people pointing to citizen use of N95s as a rational response to the new, more contagious British variant of COVID-19.

In mid-2020, a policy of reserving N95s for health care workers made sense.  But now that domestic production has increased several-fold, and even a hard-hit state like Minnesota has a half-year supply on hand for hospital use (see below), and we’re facing a faster-spreading COVID variant, it’s more than time to rethink that, and start getting N95s into the hands of the public.

Here’s a story from last week on a group of Boston physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital calling for distribution of N95 masks to the public.  For all the obvious reasons.  Best quote:  “Ideally, a set of masks would be mailed to each U.S. household every month — the costs of doing so pale in comparison to the pandemic’s toll on lives and the economy. ”  I’m not so sure about their cost-benefit calculation, but I’ll ditto the sentiment of that.

This recent story on Vox is about the new B.1.1.7 (British) COVID-19 variant.  The gist of it is, we need to step up our game.  And among the options is to step up your mask to an N95 respirator.  In addition to otherwise minimizing your potential exposure to the virus.

Here’s an article about Germany, dated January 13 2021.  The state of Bavaria is considering making N95s  (FFP2s) mandatory in public places Virtually everyone cited in that article said that was a good idea.  The sole concern was that everyone, even those with low incomes, could afford to buy them.  (And, separately, that men must be clean-shaven for these to be effective.  Even a modest stubble interferes with the seal.)

Presumably, that’s just piggybacking on the existing decision by the German government to supply subsidized FFP2 (N95) masks to all elderly persons and persons with known risk factors for a severe COVID-19 infection (Post #945).

My favorite quote:  “Judging by the number of FFP2 masks being worn in the Bundestag, Söder already has a political majority behind him.”  Contrast that to the U.S. Congress, where three Democrats claim to have likely picked up COVID during their time in a crowded safe room in the Capitol, while the Republicans in the room refused to wear masks.

On the bright side, regarding the U.S. Executive Branch:  Press aides in the Biden White House will all be required to wear N95 masks. 

When I read that, my first thought was, won’t somebody call them out for wearing protective gear that’s not readily  available to the average citizen?  Then I realized the ones to do the calling-out would have to be Republicans, who won’t wear masks, period.  So I don’t think the criticism will come from that sector.

But until the Federal government steps in an provides some order to this market, what can an ordinary citizen do to get their hands on an N95 respirator?  Short of knowing a health care provider who will give you some.

I’m seeing a lot more popular-press articles on where to buy an N95 mask, though it’s hard to separate the hype from reality.  A lot of what passes as press articles looks like infomercials to me.  At this juncture, I’m not sure I’d trust any of that advice, no matter how good it looks.

I see a lot of proposed “tests” for masks, but none of them seem to have any merit for identifying true N95 masks versus others.  Some might let you reject obviously inferior masks (e.g., cloth so thin you can blow out a candle through it.)   But near as I can tell, the only way to tell if a mask filters to the N95 standard is to have access to some fairly high-tech lab equipment.  Nothing you can do at home will reliably separate N95s from lower-filtration masks.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of knock-offs in the U.S..  Exactly how prevalent those are, it’s tough to say.  As with the home “mask tests”, you can look for obvious signs of fakes (starting from this CDC web page).  But all that does is let you toss out the obvious fakes.

My approach to finding (what I hope are) true N95 respirators was to think like an economist, not like a scientist.  I bought masks that would not be profitable to counterfeit.  I ended up buying name-brand, thin, awkward-to-wear, odd-looking, non-standard, not-for-healthcare duckbill N95s.  For cheap (Post #918).  I just can’t see the profit in generating knockoffs of that.  So I think those are genuine.

As a backup, I bought a couple of copies of the masks that did well in a set of mask tests recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (see Post #924 for a review of the article, Post #938 for links to the mask manufacturer).   Those appear to be no great shakes.  They are a simple double-layer nylon mask with ear loops.  But they have the advantage of having performed well when tested in a realistic fashion, and having those test results published in JAMA.  While those don’t have as good a filtration ability as an N95 respirator, they also have no counterfeit risk.  Presumably, assuming the JAMA mask test was legit, those will function at a high level, just not at an N95 level.

But, basically, the market for masks is more-or-less pure chaos.  You have to figure your odds and take your best bet.  No guarantees.  It’s a market that is just begging to have some regulatory authority step in and provide some sort of guarantees.

Finally, this article about counterfeit masks in Minnesota had a couple of bits of information that I’ve been trying to find.  Solid information on the increase in N95 production and on the stockpiles available to health care providers.

First, as of the end of December 2020, “… hospitals in Minnesota had 105 days’ worth of N95 masks in their storerooms collectively, and … the state warehouse had another 98 days’ worth on hand.”  Minnesota was one of several hard-hit Midwestern states, so if they have enough, my guess is, more or less everyone does.

And the reason for that?  When talking about 3M (headquartered in Minneapolis), “The company is making 95 million N95s per month, up from 22 million a month at the end of last year.”  And so, 3M managed roughly to quadruple N95 production over the course of the year.