A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Nov 28, 2020

How New Covid Mask Models Are Relieving Pressure On N95 Supplies

As the pandemic continues and recent surges create concern, manufacturers are finally beginning to recognize opportunity and meet demand for higher quality masks that do not impinge on supplies medical and hospital usage. JL

Austen Hufford reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Manufacturers are introducing face masks for general use that they say offer more protection than cloth coverings without taxing supplies of N95 masks. N95s have been in short supply since the pandemic began. The new surge in cases is putting fresh strain on U.S. stockpiles.The new masks are designed to fill a hole in the medical-gear market as Covid-19 cases surge—something for nonmedical people worried about exposure in their day-to-day lives.

Manufacturers are introducing face masks for general use that they say offer more protection than cloth coverings without taxing supplies of the N95 masks used in hospitals.

These mask makers said many of the new models coming to market are more protective than cloth masks but don’t reach the level of protection provided by N95s, which stop at least 95% of very small particles with a sophisticated filter and a snug fit to the face.

The new masks are designed to fill what makers call a hole in the medical-gear market as Covid-19 cases surge—something for nonmedical people worried about exposure in their day-to-day lives. Manufacturers say their new masks follow recommendations from public health authorities and typically include a combination of reusable layers and a replaceable filter.

Despite big increases in domestic production, N95s have been in short supply since the pandemic began. The new surge in cases is putting fresh strain on U.S. stockpiles of a critical piece of equipment for doctors and nurses treating patients with Covid-19.

The new masks aimed at everyday consumers aren’t subjected to the same federal certification process as N95s intended for medical workers. Getting certified to produce N95s is a long and rigorous process, manufacturers said. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has approved about 20 additional makers of N95s and similar products this year, according to the agency, increasing the number of certified companies around the world by about one-third.

Honeywell International Inc., HON 0.83% which is making 20 million N95s a month for medical workers, recently started selling a new mask aimed at the general public that the company says offers more protection than plain cloth. The $30 mask has two layers of polyester, nylon and spandex woven together and comes with 12 replaceable filters made out of polypropylene, which is the main filtering material in standard N95s. Will Lange, who runs Honeywell’s personal protective equipment business, said the Charlotte, N.C.-based conglomerate aimed to combine the comfort of a cloth mask with protection near what an N95 affords.

“We tried to combine the best of both worlds,” he said.

Some officials and medical experts are encouraging people to wear masks that offer more protection than simple cloth.

Canadian public health officials this month said people should wear masks in public that contain three layers: two fabric plus a filter layer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on Nov. 10 to say masks offer some protection to the wearer in addition to people nearby.

Emiel DenHartog, a professor who studies respiratory protection at North Carolina State University, welcomed the work to make new kinds of masks for the public. He cautioned, though, that there isn’t a consensus on how manufacturers should test these products.

“It’s hard for people to judge what is reliable,” he said.

Respiratory-protection experts say how much protection a mask provides—to both the wearer and people nearby—depends on how well it filters, how well it fits and how easy it is to breathe through. The CDC has said that a mask with multiple layers of higher-thread cloth offers more protection than a mask with one layer of lower-thread cloth.

Hampton, N.H.-based Sleepnet Corp., which makes masks for people with sleep apnea, also sells a reusable N95-style mask that was designed only to protect the wearer during work on dusty construction sites or home-improvement projects. It includes a valve through which people exhale unfiltered air, which could include virus particles.

Robert Skaff, a business unit manager at Sleepnet, says consumers want effectiveness and availability.

People have been buying the masks to protect against the coronavirus, so Sleepnet this month started selling a plug for the valve that prevents droplets that could contain the virus from being exhaled out of the mask.

“In a pandemic, what are you worried about? Effectiveness and availability,” said Robert Skaff, business unit manager for Sleepnet’s N95 mask.

Keith Layson bought a cloth mask online when the virus began spreading across the U.S. earlier this year. He said he found it uncomfortable and hard to breathe through. This summer the Tacoma, Wash.-based salesman bought a polyester mask with insertable filters produced by alpine gear maker Outdoor Research LLC. Mr. Layson said he bought it because he knew the company, recently approved as an N95 maker, had added medical-grade masks to its normal product line of high-quality mountain-climbing gear.

“It’s not just about covering your face anymore; it’s about how effectively you are mitigating the spread of the virus,” Mr. Layson said.

The New York City Fire Department recently said it would buy a type of reusable mask made by 3M Co. MMM -0.13% so as not to use up medical-grade N95 masks. The masks, known as elastomerics, are certified to offer as much protection as disposable N95s but are typically made from rubber and plastic and contain a replaceable filter.

Another manufacturer of the reusable elastomerics, MSA Safety Inc., is encouraging hospitals to use them instead of disposable N95 masks and recently won regulatory approval for a mask without an exhalation valve. The company said elastomerics can save hospitals space and money on their stockpiles because they are reusable, while N95 masks are thrown away after use. Some hospitals say using elastomerics instead of disposable N95s can be complicated because of the cleaning protocols necessary to reuse them.

ThermoPore Materials Corp. secured government approval in September to make a new type of N95 that uses a different filtration material than the standard polypropylene, which has been in short supply.

President Ken Milam said the material ThermoPore is using, sintered polyethylene, looks under a microscope like BB pellets stuck together, compared with the tangled spaghetti of polypropylene. The company is trying to scale up production of masks made with the material at its factory in Newnan, Ga.

“I wish we could bring it to more people faster,” Mr. Milam said.

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