Even all cloth masks are not equal. Construction, materials, and fit matter, and these can’t be tracked or certified with homemade masks. Unlike cloth masks, medical-grade masks (also called respirators) that adhere to standards such as N95 (in the U.S.), FFP2 (in the European Union), and KN95 (in China) do a much better job of protecting the wearer and dampening transmission. Ideally, they should also come with instructions on how to wear them and ensure that they fit properly.
Because we have written about masks, we’ve become informal advisers to friends, family, and strangers on the internet. We’re not much help, though. When our friends ask us simple questions like “Where should I buy a mask?” or “Is my mask any good?,” we don’t have great answers. We can mumble generalities: Make sure it fits well; here are some guidelines about layers; try to avoid fake N95s. But if we can’t give wholly satisfying answers to such basic questions, then how is the general public expected to fare?
Tragically, America is swamped with fraudulent medical-grade masks, some of which are only 1 percent effective. Many masks do not have labels clearly indicating their manufacturer. Some official mask-testing methods are inappropriate, including the use of far higher pressure than normal breathing exerts. No reasonable certification is available for the most useful masks generally available to the public. All of this means that everyone has to somehow figure out for themselves which masks are effective.
We routinely get PR pitches for excellent new solutions as well as snake-oil remedies, and we sometimes have trouble telling them apart—how is an ordinary person supposed to evaluate competing claims? When we share our articles about masks on social media, we are asked where to buy proper masks. Not only do we have no answer, but we often find that marketers will answer instead, directing readers to unreliable, overpriced masks. Worse, the supply situation apparently remains so dire that the CDC still “does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators,” because they’re crucial supplies that must continue to be reserved for health-care workers and other first responders.
Not all countries have this problem. Taiwan massively scaled up its manufacturing of masks at the start of 2020, such that by April every citizen received a fresh supply of high-quality masks each week, and the distribution system was regulated by the government. Taiwan’s COVID-19 death rate per capita is more than 1,000 times lower than that in the U.S. Hong Kong has been distributing patented six-layer masks (the efficacy of which has been laboratory tested) to every citizen. Singapore is on at least its fourth round of distributing free, reusable, multilayer masks with filters to everyone—even kids, who get kid-size ones. In Germany, Bavaria has just announced that it will be requiring higher-grade masks. If all of these places can do this, why can’t we?