So they want you to go back to work. They tell you they will sanitize your work area and space out employee desks and provide you with hand sanitizer. You must wear a mask. Bring one from home.
Don’t do it unless you are really up against it. The government and colleges and all kinds of employers are putting pressure on people to work in dangerous surroundings, like the meat packing plants, nursing homes, assembly lines and dormitories.
Just wear your mask, say the authorities, you’ll be okay. If it’s an ordinary cloth or paper mask that are for sale everywhere, you’re in risky territory. A little research on masks tells me that 99% of masks worn by us civilians these days are ineffective when it comes to stopping the tiny droplets of COVID 19 expelled by people sneezing, coughing and even talking forcefully. Single or double fabric layers, same deal. It’s only with four fabric layers that we start to get some real protection, like in the NIOSH* approved N95s. The main thing all these cloth and paper masks are good for is to help protect other people if you are infected. If you sneeze or cough, it will trap most of the COVID 19 next to your face.
My first couple masks were homemade affairs. I made my first one in the early days of the pandemic, when the web was full of advice on how to make your own, and many public-spirited people warmed up their old sewing machines , made masks, and many of them donated their home-made masks to area hospitals. My first mask has survived many washings. The elastic band is out of an old pair of Hanes underwear, the stiffener piece over my nose is from a Dunkin Donuts coffee bag , and the fabric was cut out of a brand-new HEPA-rated vacuum cleaner bag. HEPA is an acronym for “high efficiency particulate air filter”. HEPA filters catch at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns. This fabric was a four-ply fabric manufactured by 3M. Through these hot days of our New England summer, it has been warm wearing this homemade mask. But when I inhale, I do get the sense that the air I am breathing has been pulled through a filter. There’s some resistance to airflow.
This morning I couldn’t find my regular mask, so I put one of the ordinary masks in the dish in the front hall. A green mask of the type you see all over town. It was like wearing nothing. The mask was cool , just perfect on a hot day. But if you shone a bright light through it, you could see that it was nearly useless. When you breathed in and out, there was no resistance, and next to no filtration. These masks will do very little to protect you if you enter one of these poisonous clouds that surround someone who is infected. Check out this Youtube video on coughing. Even with the cautious restart of normal life, a whole football team has been quarantined. If you huff and puff like you have to when you play football, one of those special camera would probably show you a poisonous cloud blossoming around the players every time the ball was snapped. The virus i tiny, in the low micron range. A micron is .00004 of an inch. At an appropriate level of magnification, woven cotton and paper looks like a coarse window screen, and a drop of virus is small enough to float right through our masks. The good N-95 masks, the so-called “gold standard” from 3M that can filter 95% or more of viral drops in the micron range are still in short supply, and have mainly been available to people working in hospitals. Maybe one of the reasons that China knocked down the virus was that they gave out 95s and their home-made KN 95s to everyone.
After five months of the pandemic we still don’t have the equipment needed to protect our people. No rifles for the soldiers. We used to manufacture the best masks in the world, and we still do. Just not many of them. The 3M company in Minneapolis is universally respected for its quality and its corporate ethics. It was one of the main suppliers of respirators to the world. The only 3M plants making N95s in the US are two relatively small plants in South Dakota and Nebraska. The factories are now working all three shifts to fill orders, but they are relatively small plants. We have shipped our manufacturing overseas, and now we are paying the price. 3M’s big manufacturing complex for masks is in China. Honeywell has opened a new plant in Smithfield RI, and another bigger plant is being built in Phoenix. On May first they shipped their first pallet of masks from Phoenix. Hospitals and state governments are still desperate to get useful effective equipment.
Here in Massachusetts COVID 19 spread from nursing home to nursing home, working its way from east to west. Anyone who has worked in a nursing home (I have) can understand why the CORONA19 virus found its niche in our state’s nursing homes. There are all these elderly people living closely together, all having health conditions that enhance their vulnerability. The Soldiers Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts was a real disaster, with more than 78 fatalities so far. Working in nursing homes on days is looking after 8 or 9 or even 10 patients; it is a race against time to do all the bed baths, Hoyer lifts, wheelchair transfers, etc. And then you run into the unexpected problems that throw you off schedule. You promise you will be back, but you never make it. I remember doing private duty work in one Northampton nursing home marveling at what a busy congested place my patient’s room was. How many people were in and out of a small two person unit, nurses, doctors ,therapists, room cleaners, someone from the meal program, and me. We were all there, breathing each other’s air. Today, we would all be testing positive.
Most of the time nursing homes had enough masks for the medical staff, but not enough for the poor patients who had to spend twenty four hours a day breathing polluted air, hearing roommates wheeze or cough or sneeze and run temperatures and you didn’t know if the patient next door had a cold or something else. The march of the virus even here in Massachusetts seems inexorable. It reminds me of the post-apocalyptic 1959 movie “On the Beach.” People waiting for the end of the world. It pictured a world after a nuclear war had destroyed all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. The only people alive lived in Australia, and in an elegiac ending, everyone down there would take suicide pills as the radiation readings rose, and the last U.S. submarine sailed north to satisfy the wishes of its crew, who want to die at home.
Here in the United States today we sit at home and wait and wait and fume helplessly as our ham-handed President spins the wheel and fires another regulatory figure while Fauci diplomatically disappears. For a long time our President refused to wear a mask, posing at Captain Midnight or Superman.
I remember when the pandemic was happening to other people. It was new and it only affected the Chinese, and those Chinese in particular who lived in or around Wuhan. We watched TV nights and there were thousands of Chinese all wearing masks. The department in charge of guesswork guessed that the epidemic had originated in a section of the Wuhan market that sold wild animal meat. All these Chinese wearing masks. I thought that the Chinese were peculiar people to panic this way. And yes, maybe cultural arrogance gets in the way of our learning how the Chinese managed to beat the disease down to a near-standstill. For some time, no new cases were reported in China. Zero.
The Chinese launched a crash program to manufacture high quality masks and more rudimentary surgical masks. They have hundreds of factories turning out masks. Inexpensive masks under a buck apiece. Firms that were manufacturing toys or diapers were told to set up production lines. DaddyBaby Ltd and KindlyCare Ltd might be two of them. Diaper firms and toy manufacturers added respirators to their manufacturing floors. Medical people had lots of masks available to give out. Not just to the doctors and nurses but to everyone who lived into an area with outbreaks. They rapidly knocked the Pandemic down.
But now the good news. Down there in Morgantown West Virginia there are a lot of hard-working people at the NPPTL (The National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory) testing all these masks made outside the United States. The NPPTL is a program of our much maligned CDC. On March 24,2020 they issued a EUA ( Emergency Use Authorization) to allow hospitals and work places to import respirators from China, Australia,Brazil, Mexico and other countries. Go to this website for a full list of approved respirators and surgical masks.
Under pressure from hospitals extremely short of N-95s, the CDC decided to cut the logjam by allowing hospitals to import respirators fastened by ear loops like the KN95s from China. The CDC and NIOSH* decided to test respirators that were not NIOSH certified. Many Chinese manufacturers are manufacturing very good respirators. For example, masks mad by the Anshun Health and Medical Technology Company had a maximum filtration efficiency of 100%, and a minimum rating of 99.99%. A new rating has been developed, the super mask, or the N99. The NPPTL/CDC lists provide detailed descriptions of many respirators including pictures and performance statistics. I counted about 420 different models on the NPPTL website.
Buying masks from abroad is, however, a hazardous business. There are a lot of crooks out there, third party people in the U.S. who will offer to get you a thousand masks, but you have to come up with all their up-front money. This webinar on the NPPTL website is an excellent introduction to the science and art of acquiring N-95s and is a credit to the staff of the much – maligned CDC.
In their haste to sell masks to Americans, there is evidently a great deal of forgery of approval documents, and counterfeit masks. Phony documentation is the norm, but the actual respirators are often ok, but you have to get samples. As one CDC staff person said,
“Just because the mask you bought for your hospital or your state has bad numbers and was made by an outfit that was manufacturing toys six months ago, it doesn’t mean that their masks are no good.”
*National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health