Factories are scrambling to make 20 times more face masks a day to keep up with demand amid coronavirus outbreak, but the masks are surprisingly difficult and expensive to make

·5 min read

While the CDC is now recommending all Americans wear masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic, it states that medical-grade masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, first responders, and others caring for people infected with COVID-19.

Face masks
Surgical masks are useful for sick people.

Source: Insider, CDC

"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.

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People wear masks as they cross the Brooklyn Bridge on March 16, 2020, in New York.

"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.

face mask
The CDC recommends covering your face in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Surgical masks are a type of medical-grade mask that protects others from getting infected by blocking the wearer from spreading the virus.

masks airport
The CDC recommends wearing a face mask in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Source: Business Insider

N95 respirators help protect health care workers from inhaling infectious particles while treating patients that may have the coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: Dr. Nicole McCullough, a global health and safety expert at 3M, demonstrates the correct way to put on a N95 respiratory mask at a laboratory of 3M.  March 4, 2020. Picture taken March 4, 2020  REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi/File Photo
A woman wears an N95 respirator.

Source: CDC

"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.

At the start of 2020 the SNS had barely 1% of the N95 masks that healthcare workers are expected to need during the coronavirus pandemic.
The N95 masks that healthcare workers need during the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

N95 masks
An N95 respirator.

Source: CDC

"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."

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A healthcare worker wears an N95 mask in a makeshift tent set up to handle coronavirus patients.

There's a global shortage of N95 respirators and surgical masks, which are designed for one-time use, forcing healthcare professionals in overwhelmed hospitals to reuse masks. This shortage was caused by the sudden spike in demand during the coronavirus pandemic.

N95 masks coronavirus
A sign tells customers that all N95 protective masks are sold out at Marin Ace Hardware in San Rafael, California, on March 2, 2020.

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider

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.

woman trying N95 mask
A woman trying on an N95 respirator.

Source: NPR

Guan Xunze, chairman of the pharmaceutical group Shengjingtong in northeastern China, told NPR that aside from the actual mask, they have to make the ear loops, the metal strip, and the packaging.

n95 face mask
An attendant holds an N95 mask over a box of disposable surgical masks in Manila, Philippines during a swine flu outbreak in 2009.

Source: NPR

Both N95s and surgical masks are made from melt-blown fabric, which is difficult and expensive to make.

n95 layers
The melt-blown fabric on a face mask.

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.

n95 factory
Technicians arrange melt-blown nonwovens at a workshop of a new material company in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, on Feb 12, 2020.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

It's made from a machine that melts down plastic material and blows it out into fabric sheets using hot air.

melt blown fabric face masks coronavirus
A disposable medical mask production line manufactures melt-blown cloth.

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.

n95 factory
Workers build the second production line of melt-blown nonwoven fabric in Yizheng, east China's Jiangsu Province, on March 27, 2020.

Source: NPR

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.

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Face masks at a store in East Palo Alto, California, on January 26, 2020.

Source: NPR

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.

melt blown fabric
A disposable medical mask production line manufactures melt-blown cloth.

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.

n95 factory
Workers build the second production line of melt-blown nonwoven fabric in Yizheng, east China's Jiangsu Province, on March 27, 2020.

Source: NPR

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