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Somehow, we still don’t have enough N95 masks

At the start of the pandemic, there was a sudden realization that hospitals did not have enough N95 respirators, the masks that are the industry standard to protect workers from respiratory illness. Because healthcare personnel working around COVID-19 patients needed many more N95s than usual, hospitals’ stockpiles weren’t large enough. The problem was so acute that members of the public were asked to donate N95s they had at home to hospitals.

Part of the reason the government took so long to recommend mask-wearing to the general public was a fear of creating a run on the remaining N95s. Now, around 10 months after the first COVID-19 cases began to spread in the U.S., as a new surge hits much of the country, little has changed: Doctors and nurses still don’t have enough. Clinics, especially small practices, are struggling to buy supplies. And many of those with masks on hand are still forced to reuse them.

“I talked with a woman at a clinic in St. Louis [last week], and she was saying that some of the staff have been using the same respirator for five months,” says Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps healthcare and essential workers access PPE. Beyond healthcare, there’s also a need for reliable masks that can be used by other essential workers, from teachers to grocery store clerks. In an ideal world, some argue, there would be enough N95s for use by everyone, since they are far more effective at preventing viral spread than cloth masks.

Instead, the problem is getting worse. Get Us PPE, another nonprofit working on the problem, says that the requests it receives for personal protective equipment have risen 240% from the same point last month. In November, the organization says that 61% of facilities were reporting shortages of PPE. Out of the healthcare workers who said they didn’t have enough N95 masks, 86% said that they were being forced to reuse them. “It’s really really pretty mind-blowing that in December, we’re still at the point where we’re subjecting healthcare workers to those kinds of unsafe conditions,” says executive director Shikha Gupta, who is also an MD.

The current surge in cases isn’t a surprise. So why are mask manufacturers like 3M still failing to meet demand—and why is it so difficult for workers to access the masks that are being made?

One challenge is the way the market is set up. Some suppliers limit purchases based on how much clinics have purchased in the past, so if a doctor’s office didn’t order many last year, they aren’t being allocated many now. Many suppliers also have high minimum orders, so it’s difficult for anyone other than large hospitals to meet those requirements.

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