Why We Need N95 Masks and Why We Don’t Have Them
To give an example of why N95 masks are needed, consider the recent opening (and immediate closure) of a school in Indiana. This school opened for the first day of school on July 31, 2020. That very same day, one student tested positive for Coronavirus. They closed the school and anyone who came near that student needed to quarantine for two weeks. Just think about the waste of time and resources, as well as the risk to health. After all that, there was no benefit because school just shut down.
But compare that to a person testing positive at a hospital. If a patient has the virus, do they close the whole hospital down? No, the doctors are wearing N95 masks that protect them. Instead, they keep the hospital open, and go about their work helping people get well. Ideally, if all teachers, students and staff at that school on July 31st had been wearing N95 masks, well, it would be just another normal day at school, and one student would go home because they were sick. N95 masks for everyone is beyond the scope of the project at this point in time, although I hope that one day my idea can be expanded to achieve perfect protection.
For now, N95 masks for teachers has the potential to enable schools to reopen or remain open. The benefit would be enhanced by other measures including smaller class sizes, keeping the same group of students together, cloth masks for students, and other ways to reduce social contact at school.
To understand why we don’t have enough N95 masks in the United States, the critical thing to know is that they are primarily imported, mostly from China. Early on, China needed almost all they could produce to protect their own citizens from the virus. In China, many were already going back to work, often in close-quarter conditions, which is why the masks were so necessary. In fact, by early March, both China and Germany banned the export of N95 masks to ensure that their citizens would have enough. And since these masks allow you to be around sick people without catching the disease, it’s understandable that a country would want to keep their products for themselves. However, because China and Germany were top producers of the masks, that means there’s a short supply for the rest of the world.
My state, California, paid a Chinese company almost $1 billion to make a big batch of N95 masks. Governor Newsom announced the purchase in April, 2020. In May, the company started missing deadlines, and then it turned out many of the masks were defective and could not be certified by the CDC. When I read the announcement I thought to myself, wow, with all the innovative people and companies in Silicon Valley, why didn’t we build a huge N95 factory right here? Then we could make as many as we want, for as long as want, and increase production every time we have a big outbreak like this. Governor Newsom was probably thinking it would be faster in the short run, which wasn’t a bad idea at the time. In the absence of our own factory, I’ve taken it upon myself and have located a certified N95 source.