N95, Cloth Masks Still In Demand One Year After COVID-19 Outbreak
U.S. manufacturers are ramping up production of N95 respirators and people continue to make cloth masks at home one year after the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.
At the same time, some states are reopening and lifting their mask mandates. Government leaders in Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, and other states see the recent rollouts of three COVID-19 vaccines and other medical advancements as reasons to lift public health requirements.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that it’s too soon to rollback COVID-19 restrictions amid the threat of new COVID-19 variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, which are said to be more contagious than the current version of the coronavirus. The public health agency also anticipates a surge in coronavirus disease cases from spring travel.
Besides the CDC, President Joe Biden also urged states not to end mask mandates. In his first executive order issued after taking office on January 20, Biden, who wears two masks, required masks to be worn on all federal property and challenged all Americans to wear a mask for the next 100 days.
Meanwhile, manufacturers are trying to keep up with the demand for N95 respirators. The 3M Company, for example, said in January that the company is making more N95 respirators than ever before. In the U.S. alone, the company reported making more than 95 million N95 respirators a month, an increase from 22 million in a month in 2019. Now, 3M plans to expand its South Dakota plant to accommodate the N95 production.
The tight-fitting N95 respirator is considered one of the most effective personal protection equipment since the mask filters out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. The CDC, however, recommends reserving N95 masks for healthcare professionals.
Dentec, based in Lenexa, Kansas, plans to manufacturer 20 times more masks now that the company received $1.4 million in state and federal funding to produce N95 respirators. In February, Dentec President Claudio Dente said he has received many calls from medical professionals who are still not able to obtain N95 respirators. The company plans to expand its operations into another facility.
After getting orders for more masks, Medline Industries, the largest privately-held manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies, repurposed part of its plant in Lithia Springs, Georgia, to meet the demand. The Northfield, Illinois-based company said it already had orders from 30 healthcare providers, which included hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and home care providers. In a news release announcing the facility’s modification, CEO Charlie Mills said that Medline’s “customers have a critical need for readily available face masks.”
Non-Medical Masks Still Effective
Studies show that cloth masks are still effective, with double-knit cotton, quilting cotton, knit nylon, and polyester satin being among the best fabrics to use. The World Health Organization recommends making a mask with three layers: an absorbent inner layer near the mouth, a middle filtration layer, and an outer layer exposed to the external environment.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Northwestern University found that multilayered fabrics filtered out a higher percentage of particles than single-layered fabrics. Researchers also found that a reusable HEPA vacuum bag exceeded the N95 masks, in some respects, according to the study published in the journal, BMJ Open.
While single-use and reusable vacuum cleaner bags were also effective in blocking particles, researchers cautioned against using single-use bags because they fall apart when cut and the wearer may potentially inhale unsafe component materials. Also, HEPA filters make masks harder to breathe through than an N95 mask.
It’s The Fit That Counts
A face mask may have filtration materials, but to get any benefit from multiple layers requires having a good fit between the mask and the wearer’s face, said
Eugenia O’Kelly, from Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering, the first author of the mask material study.
Most people have experienced the frustration of trying to keep the mask from slipping down from their face, leaving their noses partially uncovered. The CDC suggests using a face mask with a nose wire to keep the cloth from slipping and prevent air from leaking in from the top of the mask.
For proper protection, CDC says that masks should completely cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides of the face without gaps. The mask should also be handled only by the ear loops, cords, or head straps, and not by the surface of the mask.
From Wearing No Masks to Wearing Two Masks
In the early stages of the pandemic, the CDC limited mask-wearing to only people who were sick, and people who were caring for someone who was sick and unable to wear a mask. But as the number of COVID cases began to climb and more data on the novel coronavirus became available, the public health agency reversed itself.
By April 2020, both the CDC and the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended that people wear a cloth face-covering in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, then CDC director, called cloth face coverings “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus.”
Recently, the CDC recommended layering up with two masks by wearing a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask. The cloth mask should push the edges of the disposable mask against the face.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the president, told NBC News’ Today, that people are “either double masking or doing a version of an N95.” It “just makes common sense” to wear two masks and “likely would be more effective,” he said.