- Factories have been scrambling to make 20 times more surgical masks and N95 respirators since the beginning of February to address the global face mask shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic, the National Development and Reform Commission in China told NPR.
- N95 respirators are used by healthcare workers to wear while handling sick patients to avoid getting sick themselves.
- Surgical masks are better for sick people to wear to avoid getting other people sick.
- Both types of masks require a material called melt-blown fabric that can only be made with a machine that takes half a year to make and costs more than $4 million.
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“We are recommending masks for everyone because many people are asymptomatic carriers, and we don’t know who the carriers are,” Chris Ziebell, an emergency medical director for US Acute Care Solutions, told Business Insider.
“So if everyone wears a mask when in public, the ones who have illness in them, whether symptomatic or not, will not contaminate the environment,” he continued.
Surgical masks are a type of medical-grade mask that protects others from getting infected by blocking the wearer from spreading the virus.
Source: Business Insider
“Surgical masks and other face coverings protect other people from the person wearing the mask. N95 protects the person wearing the mask from other people,” Ziebell told Business Insider.
They’re called N95 respirators because they block out at least 95% of particles in the air, including virus particles, but they have to be fitted properly to work.
“We actually put the mask on and put a hood on over it. We fill the hood with stinky aerosol. If the person wearing the mask can smell the stink, then the mask doesn’t fit right, and a different mask has to be tried,” Ziebell told Business Insider. “When we find one that seals so perfectly to the face that no stink can get in, that becomes the mask to wear.”
While factories are scrambling to make 20 times more masks to keep up with demand, workers told NPR the masks are more difficult to make than one might think.
Both N95s and surgical masks are made from melt-blown fabric, which is difficult and expensive to make.
Source: CBS News
The material is a fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers so thin that the wearer can block infectious particles and breathe simultaneously.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
It’s made from a machine that melts down plastic material and blows it out into fabric sheets using hot air.
Source: CBS News
This machine, which costs $4.23 million, relies on perfect air conditions to produce consistent results since it uses hot air to stretch the plastic into sheets.
Before the pandemic, half the world’s face masks were made in China and most US companies that have converted the factories to make N95 face masks get their melt-blown fabric from China.
While Chinese firms make almost three million tons of nonwoven fabric each year, less than 1% of it is melt-blown fabric, according to the China Nonwoven and Industrial Textiles Association.
Source: Vox Media
Leo Liu, a sales director at Haigong Machinery, a Chinese company that assembles machine parts for melt-blown lines, told NPR the machines take six months to make and another month to assemble.