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N95 masks: failure by federal administration to use DPA leads to persistent shortages: WaPo

2020-09-21
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The Washington Post published on September 21 an account of why there is still a severe shortage of N95 masks. The article attempts to answer a seemingly simple question: “Why is the world’s richest country still struggling to meet the demand for an item that once cost around $1 a piece?” This piece (and other coronavirus coverage) is available for free on the WaPo website.

For those who are not yet aware of what an N95 mask is, they are simply masks that filter out 95% of airborne particles. This Wikipedia page has a thorough explanation of what these masks do. The medical type of N95 mask is certified by the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and recommended for use against infectious bacteria and viruses. They are made of nonwoven polyester fiber and electrostatically charged to trap small particles.

The Washington Post article explains that the federal administration could have obtained a machine capable of making 1.5 million N95 masks a day that was created with funding from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2018– but it failed to purchase the rights despite having paid for its invention. What is worse, in early 2020, an opportunity to ramp up production of the masks offered by a company that was ready to do so was turned down.

As a result of the administration’s dropping the ball, the only American manufacturer of N95 masks is 3M, and it can only make so many. 3M is primarily motivated by profit in making masks– there is no government mandate. They will be producing 160 million a month by December, but that still will not be enough to meet demand. The administration has not invoked the Defense Production Act to order companies to make the masks, which would guarantee companies a fixed profit and a market for all they could make.

All of this information, and much more, is available for free in the article by the Washington Post, which is making all its coronavirus pieces subscription-free during the pandemic. The article includes a clear pictorial explanation of how the masks work. It also has personal-interest bits on people who use the masks. It is well worth taking the time to read for an understanding of why the masks are needed and what the administration has failed to do to help.

As a postscript, there are messages about wearing glasses or goggles as well as a mask that make an argument that they give significant additional protection. Apparently, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, goggles are a good idea– see this People magazine article or this New York (NYMag) article.

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