Straight Dope Message Board

Straight Dope Message Board (
-   The Quarantine Zone (
-   -   Shortage of N95 masks (

Dewey Finn 03-24-2020 01:20 PM

Shortage of N95 masks
Many hospitals are experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment, especially the N95 masks used when treating someone with a real or possible COVID-19 infection. Clinicians are being asked to reuse N95 masks over the course of a day or over multiple days, or are putting disposable paper masks over the N95 masks to prolong their useful life. Normally, the N95 masks are disposable and one-time use only. The hospitals are having trouble keeping enough in stock with some reporting only a few days worth in inventory.

And yet, I saw reports that various entities outside healthcare, like Apple, Facebook and Salesforce, have donated or are promising to donate masks. So where are they getting them from? I thought the manufacturers were making as many as they could and still not meeting the demand. I heard PG&E, a California utility, donated a million or more masks, but these were ones they stocked for use during wildfires. That doesn't explain how or why Apple or Facebook would have large quantities of masks.

FlikTheBlue 03-24-2020 01:37 PM

I’m not sure about Apple or Facebook, but I have read about smaller donations of such supplies made by the directors of medical shows. I think Grey’s Anatomy has donated it’s stock of such supplies.

Wesley Clark 03-24-2020 01:41 PM

Maybe IT companies use them in their computer server rooms, or in manufacturing of computer parters.

I read an article online that they need special machines to make N95 masks, and those machines take months to build. So sadly we can't just ramp up production overnight and start making a ton more.

Dewey Finn 03-24-2020 01:41 PM


Originally Posted by FlikTheBlue (Post 22208036)
I’m not sure about Apple or Facebook, but I have read about smaller donations of such supplies made by the directors of medical shows. I think Grey’s Anatomy has donated it’s stock of such supplies.

Right, and in such cases I can understand that a medical drama series would have a small stock of medical supplies, like the N95 masks that are so hard to find. But why would Apple or Facebook have any (let alone a million or more)?

Alex Osaki 03-24-2020 01:50 PM

In the very specific Facebook case, these were masks they had stockpiled during the wildfires that they're now donating, presumably to protect their employees who either had reasons to be concerned about wildfire smoke, or thought that they did.

What Exit? 03-24-2020 01:52 PM

Some have stocks of masks for a variety of reasons. The N95 is a common mask for painting.
It doesn't sound like Apple knows where they're getting 2 million masks from.

Facebook apparently had 720,000 masks in inventory for possible use for workers with the wildfire concerns. Apparently Elon Musk also had a large supply he donated to UCLA Health. Maybe Apple has a similar supply?

3M has already doubled production and plans to increase it even more and some other US Manufacturers are regearing to make N95 masks so the supply chain should improve.

Stranger On A Train 03-24-2020 02:03 PM

Respirator masks are used for more than just medical applications. Guide to a few different types of respirator masks. Some of these masks may be N95-grade masks, which are often used in 10000K or better clean-room environments where even aerosols exhaled by workers can pose a serious contamination problem.

It is important to understand that these masks don’t work simply by physically blocking the passage of virional and most microbal pathogens by aperture size alone. The filtering material is a type of meltblown polypropylene which is used to make non-woven textile layers that have a high volumetric throughput but with very small aperature size. However, it is actually electrostatic attraction which grabs virion, sticking it to the material and letting the liquid of the aerosol droplet evaporate, which then causes the virus to desiccate and become inactive as the protein capsid literally falls apart. As the material becomes saturated with moisture, it becomes less effective. This is also why alcohol or other solvents cannot be used to sterilize for reuse. There is a paper from a study in China which indicated that exposure to a 70 °C temperature for 30 minutes would cause the virus to break down. However, there are many other pathogens found in hospitals, like the dreaded MRSA, which can survive that environment so some additional work needs to be done to quantify the risk (though obviously if the choice is between working with a moderately contaminated mask and working without any protection, I’d pick the mask).

Homemade masks using natural woven fibers like cotton, linen, or silk may be worse than useless as aerosol particles might initial stick to them and then pass through with reduced size, settling deeper within the lungs and leading to a more virulent and difficult to fight infection.. As a side project I’ve looked at a number of concepts for 3D printed mask frames and sealing materials like 3 mil contractor bags but the Achilles heel is an useful filter material which just doesn’t exist in natural or commonly available textile materials.


Originally Posted by What Exit? (Post 22208059)
3M has already doubled production and plans to increase it even more and some other US Manufacturers are regearing to make N95 masks so the supply chain should improve.

I wouldn’t put a lot of hope in that, at least in the near term. NPR: “ COVID-19 Has Caused A Shortage Of Face Masks. But They're Surprisingly Hard To Make”


What Exit? 03-24-2020 02:48 PM

Honeywell is one of the companies ramping up production of masks. They're using words like soon, but it seems hopeful.

Honeywell CEO Darius Adamczyk said in a news release. “Our Rhode Island facility already produces industry-leading safety gear and soon will play a critical role in supplying the Strategic National Stockpile with N95 masks.”

The other companies trying to get into this fast may run into the problems you indicated.

Stranger On A Train 03-24-2020 04:24 PM

From the cited article:
Both the masks made for medical personnel and for consumer purchase require a once-obscure material called melt-blown fabric. It's an extremely fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers that forms the critical inner filtration layer of a mask, allowing the wearer to breath while reducing the inflow of possible infectious particles.


And there's now a global shortage of melt-blown fabric due to the increased demand for masks — and the difficulty in producing this material.


The machines are not easy to make because of the exacting precision required, says Müller: "You need to stretch these fibers by hot air, and [the air] needs to be in perfect condition over the width of the machine. The biggest dilemma is that many of the machines are not producing consistent quality."

Reicofil's Müller says he gets more than four dozen requests a day, mainly from China, to buy melt-blown fabric and production lines but has to turn nearly all of them away; making a single machine line takes at least five to six months.

Dewey Finn 03-24-2020 05:32 PM

I wonder what reusable alternatives there are to N95 masks? One I'm aware of is the Max-Air Systems CAPR respirator, but it's obviously more expensive and it has batteries that need to be charged.

In normal times, disposable N95 masks work fine, but not when everyone, everywhere is confronting the same emergency.

China Guy 03-24-2020 07:43 PM

production lines for a mask made to a lesser standards than N95 can be spun up in a few days if there is enough of the mask raw materials to run the lines with. My former employer needs about 1 million masks per day (not a typo) for it's workforce. They spun up their own mask manufacturing.

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 03:44 PM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2020, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to:

Send comments about this website to:

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Copyright © 2019 STM Reader, LLC.