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COVID-19 ISO Insights

Pandemic Market Oddity: N95 Mask Shortage Despite Availability

April 12, 2021

By: Christopher Sirota, CPCU

Key Takeaway: The cited source suggests that some small hospitals and healthcare facilities may be unnecessarily facing PPE shortages for their staff.

Many small U.S. healthcare facilities are reportedly in short supply of N95 masks despite a supply of masks actually being readily available for sale. What is happening?

NPR's The Indicator podcast (9 minutes listen here with transcript) has reported on this strange occurrence during the pandemic.

Refresher: Why N95 Respirator Masks are Crucial for Healthcare Workers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explains that N95 respirator masks:

[…] reduce the wearer’s exposure to airborne particles, from small particle aerosols to large droplets. N95 respirators are tight-fitting respirators that filter out at least 95% of particles in the air, including large and small particles.

The CDC has released an infographic that compares N95 respirator masks with so-called surgical masks.

The infographic highlights that surgical masks are limited to blocking liquid droplets whereas N95 masks go further to filter airborne particles. N95 masks are thus crucial equipment in healthcare settings during the pandemic, since airborne particles, as explained in this March 2021 article in Nature, are considered a key means of viral transmission, especially indoors.

For example, the CDC explains that healthcare personnel "who enter the room of a patient with suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection should adhere to Standard Precautions and use a NIOSH-approved N95 or equivalent or higher-level respirator, gown, gloves, and eye protection."

Warehouses Full of N95 Wait for Buyers

According to the NPR podcast, there may have been N95 mask shortages in the past, but now there are new U.S. manufacturers and some of them have inventories of millions of N95 masks; one company reportedly has 15 million N95 masks in their warehouse, and was reportedly geared up to produce a million each day with a newly hire staff of nearly two thousand workers.

So why doesn't this supply meet the demand?

Per the podcast, it seems that US manufacturers have had some obstacles selling to hospitals that need them; the obstacles include a 30 percent higher price than similar masks made in China for at least one manufacturer. The higher price reportedly has made many smaller hospitals think twice about purchasing the masks because they are struggling with small budgets already hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic due to initially inflated costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) they has to purchase.

Another obstacle US manufacturers are reportedly facing is a general lack of trust in the marketplace, partly due to those inflated costs and partly due to some lower quality counterfeit PPE that was allegedly in circulation.

Some U.S. N95 manufacturers, the podcast notes, are hoping for federal purchases of their N95 which could then be distributed nationwide to healthcare facilities challenged by PPE shortages.

Of interest, a February 2021 article in Infection Control Today has reported about a letter signed by several physicians and scientists that was sent to the CDC to urge it to expand the N95 guidance to more settings and to some non-healthcare workers who may be at risk of exposure to airborne transmission; the letter reportedly notes that there is no longer a shortage of masks to be concerned about.