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Why N95 masks are still hard to get, even though production is up


Medical masks move along a conveyor belt.
Enlarge / A machine makes respiratory masks in a family-owned medical equipment factory in north Miami, Florida, on February 15, 2021. The firm now has 30 million unsold masks because it can’t find buyers in the United States.

Even though we’ve had more good vaccine news lately, COVID-19 in the US is still very much a widespread concern. We’re still going to need masks for many months to come. So why, a year into the pandemic, are good ones still so hard to find?

The New York Times reports there are dozens of small, US-based businesses that have pivoted to making medical-grade masks cannot sell them to consumers because of policies put in place to protect supply chains at the beginning of the pandemic.

Facebook and Instagram will be happy to show you ads for cute, fashion-forward fabric masks (in adult and children’s sizes)—but not ads for actual medical-grade, government-approved N95 masks. The social network explained to the NYT that its policies are meant both to preserve supplies for workers in the health care field who need them the most and also to cut down on sales of counterfeits.

One manufacturer told the NYT that his sales have dropped to $5,000 per day from a high of $40,000 per day since Facebook prohibited him from running ads last August. “These companies have such a monopoly that you really can’t be in business without them,” he told the NYT. “The policy just doesn’t make sense.”

There is indeed still deep need in the health care field. Both The Washington Post and NPR reported in the past month that N95 respirators are still in short supply in some hospitals and health care facilities. Even where such equipment is available, prices have increased by 100 to 500 percent.

When supply and demand don’t match

There are manufacturers making supplies of medical-grade masks and buyers who need them, but the prepandemic purchasing systems built out all over the nation still haven’t quite aligned to make those chains link up.

Earlier reporting by The New York Times in February identified 19 small US firms that recently received federal approval for their N95 masks but which have been unable to sell them to health care facilities. Large health care chains, state governments, and other major buyers have been hesitant to purchase from the newer entrants to the market, either for reasons of price or unfamiliarity.

The White House told the NYT that the Biden administration expects soon to announce a number of new federal contracts for personal protective equipment, including masks, but cautioned that sorting out the supply chain is a long-term project. President Joe Biden last week signed an executive order to review and address critical supply chain issues in several market segments, including PPE, but those plans, too, are on the order of months or years.

The manufacturers told the NYT that being able to sell directly to consumers through sites such as Amazon would “help them stay afloat” while they wait for federal assistance. Unfortunately, that, too, is fraught with challenges. Shoppers conducting searches for masks may receive a message from Amazon that supplies are being restricted to prioritize “for organizations on the front lines.” And even if consumers can get through, manufacturers said, the site’s policies mean that major producers such as Kimberly-Clark, that can ship in bulk, are more likely to have their wares accepted for sale.

“Amazon changes the rules all the time without explanation,” one manufacturer told the NYT. “I realize they’re not a charity, but a small company like ours doesn’t stand a chance.”

Amazon has spent the last year trying to thread a difficult needle when it comes to PPE. Profound shortages early in the pandemic drove up prices for a number of goods dramatically. About a year ago, state and federal regulators asked Amazon to take action against price-gougers charging sky-high sums for masks and other household goods. Then in June, 3M—which manufactures N95 filtration masks—filed suit against Amazon over the prevalence of fakes on the platform.

“Our teams continually monitor the supply of PPE, including N95 masks, to ensure we can meet the demand for health care customer needs, as well as general business and at-home customers,” Amazon told the NYT.

Although now might be a good time to up your mask game, you don’t necessarily have to find an N95 mask to do it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study finding that adjusting the fit of a standard medical procedure mask or wearing a widely available fabric mask over it may significantly reduce your exposure to particles capable of carrying the coronavirus.



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