My kingdom for an N95 mask!

January 28, 2021

First tests, now masks.  The deadly novel coronavirus and its rapidly mutating and virulent variants have prompted a reasonable, but frustrating new travel impediment: better mask protection.

Cloth and one-time use paper masks, even those with double layers and filters, are now deemed some places in Europe to be insufficient to keep my breath from escaping into the surrounding space:

“A number of European countries have announced new mask recommendations and requirements, pushing aside fabric masks in favor of surgical masks or medical-grade respirators.”

The Washington Post also reported this week on the growing Euro requirements, saying in part:

“There is a growing body of scientific evidence that has indicated that mask use in general can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. One study published in the Lancet medical journal in June compared transmission rates across 16 countries and found that both N95 and surgical masks have a stronger association with protection compared with single-layer masks.

“Another, by Duke University in August, compared the efficacy of different face coverings and found that fitted N95 masks were the most effective. Normal surgical masks are about three times more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of virus droplets, according to a 2013 study.”

The Post story goes on to report N95 masks are now required in Bavaria and other parts of Germany, with Austria instituting a similar policy on Monday of this week.

Airlines are following suit, it seems, starting with Lufthansa, which says in its FAQs:

“From 1 February 2021, only facemasks of the following standards will be permitted on flights to and from Germany: FFP2, KN95 and N95 standard or surgical masks. The latter are medical face masks known from everyday medical practice, colloquially also called surgical masks. They are medical products and were developed for the protection of others. FFP2, KN95 and N95 are filtering face pieces which protect the wearer of the mask from droplets and aerosols and serve to protect others and oneself.”

Here in the United States, we are moving in that direction.  This WaPo article muses over the growing habit of wearing double masks like President Biden and Veep Harris have been seen doing:

”The change can be as simple as slapping a second mask over the one you already wear, or better yet, donning a fabric mask on top of a surgical mask. Some experts say it is time to buy the highest-quality KN95 or N95 masks that officials hoping to reserve supplies for health-care workers have long discouraged Americans from purchasing.”

Maybe the moving mask requirement wouldn’t be so bad if the new standard of N95 surgical mask, and its nearly-as-good-but-not-approved-by-the-CDC equivalent KN95, was readily available.  Trouble is, they are hard to find and expensive.

N95 masks are $5 each and up, are not readily available everywhere, if at all, and only last a day of constant wearing (though in such short supply at hospitals that some medical workers have been reusing them for several days). Thus for travelers, that’s another $5 per day—if you can find them for sale. Or take a supply with you, displacing something else in your suitcase that you presumably needed.  This expense on top of the PCR testing requirements now in effect both going and returning home, a burden to coordinate and with a hefty price tag ($50 and up per test).

What’s the difference between the N95 and KN95 masks, anyway?  As a well-heeled business traveler told me yesterday: “To be honest, it confuses the hell out of me. I THINK they are essentially the same.”

He’s right that the two are mostly identical, as this excellent Rolling Stones article simplifies quite clearly:

“ ‘N95 masks offer protection against particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, and while the coronavirus itself is around 0.1 microns in size, it’s usually attached to something larger, such as droplets that are generated by everyday activities like breathing and talking,’ explains Shaz Amin, founder of WellBefore, which sells masks, face shields, wipes and sanitizers on its website. ‘Due to the multiple layers of non-woven fabric and melt blown fabric in the N95 masks, the strong material makeup of these masks are great at preventing airborne particles from entering through your mouth and nose.’

“But how are N95 masks different from KN95 masks? The main difference lies in how the masks are certified [by the CDC’s respected NIOSH arm]. ‘In general,’ says Sean Kelly, founder of New Jersey-based PPE of America, ‘N95 is the U.S. standard, and the KN95 is the China standard.’ Because of this, only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the United States, even though KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.”

Checking around Raleigh, I found that Ace Hardware has KN95, but not N95, masks.  In fact I couldn’t find any N95 masks, certainly not the models approved by NIOSH, in any grocery store I checked, nor at Costco, Walgreens, Home Depot, or Lowe’s. 

The gold standard for N95 surgical mask respirators seems to be the 3M models 1860, 1870, 1804, and 1805.  After looking at many online suppliers (all out of stock), I found a San Diego company with the 1870+ in stock, but at $163 for a package of 20 (that’s an eye-popping $8.15 each).  I bought them to be sure to have a few in my bag when I start traveling again (upcoming South African trip in May) in case I am confronted by airline personnel like Lufthansa’s who require an N95 or KN95.

3M’s N95 Model 8210 are much cheaper (under $2 each) and locally available through the Sherwin Williams Commercial Store (not always in stock and only one 20-pack per customer).  They are listed as “NIOSH approved” on the CDC website, but they are not technically surgical masks.  Still, if they have the get-out-of-jail-free N95 code stamped on them, then they will probably pass muster with airlines like Lufthansa, as they are not likely to be drilling down on model numbers.

For reference, CDC-approved N95 mask models are listed here.

So will we suddenly see lots of N95 masks available to travelers as airlines and governments worldwide make them mandatory?  This NPR article on why N95 masks are still in short supply in the U.S. isn’t very encouraging.  It lists a lot of reasons why production is unlikely to increase fast, such as this:

“To make more N95s, [manufacturers] would need new mask machines, each of which takes four months to custom build and costs as much as $1 million. To justify building extra machines, [makers] needed assurance that U.S. hospitals and government agencies wouldn’t just go back to buying cheaper Chinese-made masks once the pandemic was over.”

All this leaves me wondering what’s next to come to inhibit travel outside our borders.  I’ve had one dose of the vaccine and am scheduled for the second dose soon, but to travel overseas, I must nonetheless arrange and pay for PCR Covid tests in both directions and now must invest in and wear expensive, rare-as-hens’-teeth surgical masks on planes and in public.  Just buying those masks makes feel a bit guilty—like getting vaccinated—because I may be depriving doctors and nurses battling to save lives of people sick with the novel coronavirus.  I’m complying, though, and I will continue to if additional requirements come up, because travel is the ultimate freedom to me.

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