“Certified N95 respirators are special. Unlike a conventional surgical mask, N95 masks are built so that 95 percent of very small airborne particles can’t get through. These masks also need to be approved by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and, depending on the type, the Food and Drug Administration. In order to fulfill those requirements, N95 masks must be constructed so that they seal tightly around one’s mouth and nose, unlike surgical or cloth masks which are loose-fitting.
The United States is now confronted with a shortage of N95 masks for a number of reasons. The masks themselves are difficult to make, in part because they require specialized equipment to meet stringent regulatory standards. Many of the companies that can make the masks are also in China. That supply chain wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, especially one that originated in the same country where many of these masks are produced. And as the novel coronavirus spread throughout China, the country’s government bought its domestically produced masks, ensuring they weren’t exported. That’s made the gap between supply and demand in the US much larger.
In the absence of a pandemic, the US has typically not produced enough of these N95 masks to meet the needs of its own workers. Prestige Ameritech and 3M are the two primary companies that do end-to-end production of medical-grade N95 masks in the US, and both are both ramping up production. Another American company, Honeywell, recently started producing N95 masks at its Rhode Island and Phoenix facilities. Still, these three companies won’t solve our mask shortage.”