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Demand for N95 and KN95 masks is rising as experts say it’s time to ‘up your mask game’

December 30, 2021, 6:18 AM UTC

High-quality N95 masks aren’t just for health-care workers anymore. Starting Thursday, Connecticut will make that abundantly clear when it begins giving away 6 million of them to the state’s 3.6 million residents. 

Any mask can help prevent COVID-19 transmission “but an N95 will provide better protection,” said Manisha Juthani, the state’s public health commissioner, in a statement announcing the giveaway. “We are distributing enough N95 masks for any Connecticut resident that would like one.” 

Early in the pandemic, N95s were in such short supply that health authorities told the public to leave them for medical workers. These days, with supplies plentiful, the public-health message is “up your mask game,” as Seattle-area officials put it.

“Because the omicron variant is so highly contagious, well-fitting and high-quality face masks are more important than ever,” they warned. 

With omicron rising, so is demand for gold-standard N95s and the less-expensive Chinese-made KN95s that are similar but less regulated. Both versions are widely available online, with KN95s going for as little as a dollar each. With their ability to fit tightly and filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, the masks provide better protection than both cloth versions and those ubiquitous blue surgical coverings.

Since mid-December, Bona Fide Masks, which operates a website that sells face coverings, has seen demand for KN95s almost triple, to about 5 million a month, said Bill Taubner, president of the distributor’s closely held parent company, Ball Chain Manufacturing. 

Another seller, WellBefore, owned by closely held Emagineer, has also seen sales of its N95s and other higher-quality masks nearly triple between November and December. “It’s safe to say customers are opting for higher quality, fitted masks,” Chief Executive Officer Shahzil Amin emailed. 

‘Bad Advice’

Current guidelines emphasize that recently infected or exposed people who could still pose a risk should “wear a well-fitting mask at all times” for five days when around others, but do not specify which type. 

“They said ‘Wear a mask’ but they didn’t say ‘wear an N95 or KN95,’” said Zeke Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. “That, to me, seems like bad advice.”

Only a handful of masks have sufficient filtration and seal well enough around the face to wear now: N95s, KN95s and KF94s, the South Korean version of an N95, Emanuel said. He has been requiring students to wear such masks lately in the University of Pennsylvania classes he teaches and has provided N95s for those who were wearing a cotton or surgical mask. 

Officials speaking out about the importance of mask quality this week ranged from former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for Congress to demand mass production and distribution of N95 masks. 

Rick Bright, a former government official who now leads the Pandemic Prevention Institute at the Rockefeller Foundation, commented on a recent White House meeting that “the most remarkable part of the briefing” was that Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, and other top officials “all wore N95 masks among the fully vaccinated, highly tested group. None wore simple blue masks or cloth face coverings.”  

They “wear better masks (N95/KN95) than they tell Americans to wear,” he tweeted

The most recent CDC guidance on masking, dated Oct. 25, recommends people seek out masks with “two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric” and that fit well. It still advises people to avoid masks labeled as surgical N95 respirators “as those should be prioritized for health care personnel.” 

Many health experts agree with Emanuel that such guidance is outdated and have been calling on the public to switch to face coverings on par with medical-grade masks for months.

“It does feel like a tipping point,” signaled by the public appearance of top officials in N95s, said Virginia Tech Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Linsey Marr, who studies viruses in the air. What changed? Along with omicron, she emailed, the national shortage of N95s ended and “it is now widely accepted that COVID-19 is transmitted through the air.”

Unlike earlier variants, it appears that “practically everyone who gets omicron is shedding virus into the air,” said Donald Milton, a University of Maryland School of Public Health professor of environmental and occupational health. He would like to see federal health leaders like Walensky and Anthony Fauci simply tell everyone to wear N95s.

Already, he said, the White House visuals send the message:“Walensky and Fauci are wearing them; you need to be wearing them. Follow what they do.” 

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