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Interest in N95 masks grows as omicron cases rise nationwide

The CDC reports 60% of N95 masks on the market don't meet the requirements laid out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

SAN ANTONIO — The N95 respirator has long been considered the gold standard of face coverings. Talks of the CDC potentially updating its guidance on masks amid the coronavirus pandemic has led many Americans on the lookout for available N95s.

The early days of the pandemic two years ago prompted top U.S. health officials to urge the public to not invest in N95s.

Dr. Duane Hospenthal, lead infectious disease expert at Baptist Health, recalls their reasoning.

“There was discouragement from buying up all the N95 or even the surgical masks because there was such a shortage for health care personnel taking care of patients in the hospital,” Hospenthal said. “But overtime as production has ramped up, not only internationally but certainly in this country, you can buy an N95 mask.”

Hospenthal noted it’s vital for consumers to pay extra attention when purchasing N95 and KN95 masks. 

“In the modern world you can get super sophisticated and the FDA actually has a website where you can click on what KN95s they approve from overseas and what N95s they certify as officially medical grade,” Hospenthal said.

The CDC has reported about 60% of N95 or KN95 masks in the market are counterfeit and fail to meet the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requirements. The agency has an extensive list of red flags when browsing for N95s.

Signs that a respirator mask may be counterfeit:

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator.
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband.
  • No NIOSH markings.
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly.
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins)
  • Claims of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children).
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands.

The CDC has yet to revise its mask guidance despite some health officials within the Biden administration expressing a need to strongly encourage the use of N95s.

“I think their current mantra is if I can get somebody to wear a mask, it’s better than no mask,” Hospenthal said.

President Joe Biden did announce plans on making “high-quality masks” available to Americans for free, although details are limited at this time.

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