Why You Can't Find An N95 Mask Despite Plenty For Sale

A Newsy investigation uncovers barriers making it difficult for the public to tap into a supply of extra N95s not purchased for health workers.
Posted at 5:21 PM, Feb 23, 2021

Amy Chan has been trying, and failing, to get N95 respirator masks for her family since hearing about new variants of the coronavirus.

"I thought to myself, OK, there's this new strain, it's super contagious," said Chan, a Phoenix mother of two boys. "I need more than just a cloth mask. Where do I find an N95?"

Two states away in Texas, Michael Bowen has a warehouse full of N95s with nowhere to go.

"We are stacking them in the aisles now," said Bowen, executive vice president and partner at Prestige Ameritech.

The Texas company manufactures and ships millions of masks to hospitals, dentists and nursing homes, but also is now able to make far more N95s than they have orders to fill.

"I need to sell 5 million respirators more a month or I need to shut down manufacturing of some respirators," Bowen said.

The masks can filter 95 percent of airborne particles.

There was a shortage in hospitals last spring, but not anymore, according to manufacturers and distributors that talked to Newsy. 

"I'm one of the most well-known mask makers out there, and I’m hearing crickets," Bowen said.

Anne Miller is the executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit group that specializes in sales of small amounts of personal protective equipment.

"When I hear we can't get supply, I'm like, call us," Miller said.

The CDC still recommends saving N95s for medical workers, guidelines that makes retailers reluctant to sell to the public.

Google blocks searches of N95 masks for sale.

The company told us it's a nod to guidance from health organizations, including the CDC, that "clearly indicates it's important to protect these critical medical supplies for frontline health care workers."

But there's no longer a need to conserve N95s, according to a group of physicians and scientists that wrote a letter to the Biden administration pointing out millions of N95 masks sitting idle.

The group says the CDC should encourage making N95s available to essential workers outside of health care settings, "such as meatpacking and poultry workers, corrections officers and transit workers," said Donald Milton, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

"A year into this pandemic, we must provide respiratory protection for all workers who need it," he said.

The FDA told Newsy it's challenging to determine how much N95 supply is available nationwide but that the agency still hears reports of spot shortages of N95s in health care. 

Hospitals have told Newsy they still struggle to find popular versions of N95 respirators made by 3M.

The CDC defended its guidance for the public to use two cloth masks stacked together instead of an N95.  

"For reasons supported by science, comfort, cost and practicality, the CDC does not recommend routine use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 by the general public," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a news conference last week.

A glut of counterfeit masks is also restraining sales of the real thing. 

Search for an N95 to buy on Facebook and a message pops up saying, "To help prevent untrustworthy sales related to coronavirus (COVID-19), we've temporarily limited sales of certain items."

Amy Chan finally tracked down some KN95 masks, a version of the N95 made in China.

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