Guest columnist Mike Kirby: Invest in the ‘gold standard’ for masks

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell holds a NIOSH N95 health care particulate respirator and surgical mask, part of his personal protection equipment (PPE). Photographed at the department’s headquarters in March. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/30/2020 9:20:20 AM

The government and dire economic necessity is putting pressure on people to work in dangerous surroundings, like the meat packing plants and nursing homes.

The cloth masks that we wear these days most likely won’t protect us from this coronavirus. The virus is tiny, in the low micron range. At an appropriate level of magnification, ordinary woven cotton looks like a coarse window screen, and a drop of virus is small enough to float right through.

The so-called “gold standard” masks from 3M can filter 95% or more of viral drops, but they are in short supply, and only are available to people working in hospitals. Maybe the reason that China knocked down the virus was that they gave out N95s and their homemade KN95s to almost everyone.

We are opening up America to this viral attack and we still don’t have the equipment needed to protect people. No rifles for the soldiers. The only 3M plants making N95s in the U.S. are two small plants in South Dakota and Nebraska. U.S. firms have shipped much of our manufacturing overseas, and now we are paying the price. Honeywell has opened two new plants making N95s, but they are just getting going. On May 1, they shipped their first pallet of masks from Phoenix.

The reports from Boston indicate that COVID-19 is spreading from nursing home to nursing home. We have barely enough masks for the medical staff, but not enough for the poor patients who have to spend 24 hours a day breathing air that has been contaminated by patients coughing and wheezing.

Nurses working in nursing homes during normal times get sicker than those who don’t because so many of their patients are chronically ill. Patient rooms are busy, intimate places. There are nurses, doctors, therapists, room cleaners and nutritionists going in and out. Social distancing is almost impossible.

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 and there were thousands of Chinese all wearing masks. I thought it odd that the Chinese were prone to panic this way. And yes, maybe cultural arrogance got in the way of our learning how the Chinese have managed to beat the disease down to a near standstill. For many days, no new cases were reported in China. Zero.

Early on, the Chinese launched a crash program to manufacture masks. Firms that were manufacturing toys or diapers were setting up production lines to make masks. Medical people had lots of masks available to give out. They rapidly knocked the pandemic down. It was aggressive testing, contact tracing and effective masks. Our CDC and its laboratory tested 170 different models of masks, almost all of them made in China. I think the Chinese KN95s made were similar to the masks that the Patriots brought back from China.

There were quite a few bad masks, but 84 of the masks that the CDC tested stopped more than 90% of the viral particles, 74 intercepted more than 95%, and a couple of their models managed to stop all of the particles. Masks made by a firm in Guiyang had a maximum filtration efficiency of 100%, and a minimum rating of 99.99%. On the web, as of a month ago, they were selling their masks in lots of 50,000 for $1.09 apiece.

Our statistics tell us that stopping the virus in Massachusetts means that we need to stop its growth in nursing homes. Protecting residents and workers means providing N95 or KN95s to everyone. China has the factories. It is time to launch a crash effort to find out which factories are putting out the most effective equipment and buy a couple million for all of us. Otherwise we are sitting ducks.

Mike Kirby is a writer and a blogger at He is retired. He served two terms as a Northampton City Councilor, and worked as a certified nurses aide for many years.

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