News & Opinion | September 22, 2020 6:00 am

Why Is There Still a Shortage of N95 Masks?

After 6 months, some of the same issues prevail

Boxes of N95 masks.
N95 masks sit stored in a medical supply area at the Austin Convention Center.
John Moore/Getty Images

Earlier this year — though it seems like years ago at this point — hospitals and health care providers struggled with a shortage of N95 masks, a critical tool for essential workers dealing with COVID-19 patients. Six months later, you might think that the N95 shortage was under control and supply chain issues would be resolved. Unfortunately, this problem dating back to the early days of the pandemic remains as we settle in to the “new normal.” All of which begs the question: how did this happen?

A new article by Jessica Contrera at The Washington Post strives to answer that question. The article opens with a day in the life of nurse Kelly Williams, who’s been wearing an N95 when working with patients. “N95s were designed to be thrown away after every patient,” Contrera writes. “By this July afternoon, Williams had been wearing the same one for more than two months.”

The issue at hand comes down to supply chains. While governmental authority was used to expand the facilities used to make ventilators earlier this year, the same steps were not taken to address N95 masks. “The organizations that represent millions of nurses, doctors, hospitals and clinics are pleading for more federal intervention,” Contrera writes, “while the administration maintains that the government has already done enough and that the PPE industry has stepped up on its own.”

It’s one more manifestation of an increasingly frustrating and inconsistent national policy with respect to the pandemic — and it’s something that’s putting people’s health at risk.

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