Newsy Investigates: Stacks of N95s Masks, No One to Buy Them

A Newsy investigation uncovers barriers making it difficult for the public to tap into a supply of extra N95s not purchased for health workers.

Video Transcript

MICHAEL BOWEN: You are looking at a stack of N95 respirators six pallets deep.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: A warehouse full of N95 respirator masks with nowhere to go.

MICHAEL BOWEN: We are stacking them in the aisles now.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Prestige Ameritech in Texas ships millions of masks to hospitals, dentists, and nursing homes, but also is now able to make truckloads of more N95s than they have orders to fill.

MICHAEL BOWEN: I need to sell 5 million respirators more a month or I need to shut down manufacturing of some respirators.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Yet Amy Chan, mother of two sons with special needs, has been trying and failing to get N95s for her family.

AMY CHAN: I thought to myself, OK, there's this new strain. It's super contagious. I need more than just a cloth mask. Where do I find an N95?

PATRICK TERPSTRA: The masks can filter 95% of airborne particles. There was a shortage in hospitals last spring, but not anymore.

MICHAEL BOWEN: I'm one of the most well-known mask makers out there, and I'm hearing crickets.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: The CDC still recommends saving N95s for medical workers. We found it's a big obstacle keeping others from being able to buy any of the excess N95s on the market. It's almost impossible to find an N95 online. Watch what happens when I go to Google Shopping and I type in N95 masks for sale. It comes back, your search did not match any shopping results. Your search is blocked.

Google tells us it's following the CDC guidance, that it's important to protect these critical medical supplies for frontline health care workers. Those guidelines from the start of the outbreak are outdated, according to a group of physicians and scientists. They wrote to the Biden administration about millions of N95s sitting idle, saying, "The CDC should encourage making them available to essential workers."

DONALD MILTON: Such as meatpacking and poultry workers, corrections officers and transit workers. A year into this pandemic, we must provide respiratory protection to all workers who need it.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: But the FDA tells us it's still hears about spot shortages of N95s in health care. The CDC says it's sticking by guidance for the public to double mask, instead of using an N95.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: For reasons supported by science, comfort, costs, and practicality, the CDC does not recommend routine use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 by the general public.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: There's also a glut of counterfeit masks, making it hard to track down a real N95. It's why Facebook says it limits N95 sales.

AMY CHAN: It's this KN95 protective mask.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Amy Chan finally tracked down some KN95s, a version of the N95 made in China.

AMY CHAN: I feel horrible about that, because here I am buying masks from China and there are people who are producing them here in our country, and I didn't even know that.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Patrick Terpstra, Newsy, Washington.