Skepticism

The REAL Reason We Ran Out of N-95 Masks

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Transcript:

Let’s talk about panic buying. Yeah, I know I’m generally a voice of reason, but even I am not immune to covid-19-inspired anxiety shopping. For instance, a few days ago I bought a dozen Cadbury Creme Eggs. Now I have one left. These truly are the endtimes.

Then there’s toilet paper, which apparently Europeans and Asians are finding pretty funny because there are only a few countries left that haven’t boarded the bidet train to Squirtsville. While Americans and Australians come to blows over the last few squares of toilet paper, Italians are like, “Wait, you still use paper to wipe your butthole like an animal?”

The only potential danger to someone in quarantine running out of toilet paper is them needing to take a lot more showers. It’s honestly not that big of a deal, though I do have to admit I’m regretting not hanging on to the 5 to 10 flyers I got every day from Michael Bloomberg before he dropped out of the race.

What might be causing an issue, though, is the panic hoarding of N-95 masks. I talked about N-95 masks back in 2018 when wildfires had pretty much destroyed the air quality here in the Bay Area. Back then, I encouraged people who were here to buy N-95 or N-100 masks and learn to fit them properly.N-95 or better masks can block the tiny particles from wildfires that can get in your lungs and cause irritation or worse. I have a reusable mask, so I bought extra single-use masks and handed them out to friends and neighbors who needed them.

N-95 masks can also prevent bacteria and viruses from getting in your lungs, which is why people rushed out to buy them. Those people also bought extra, but it’s not really clear if they’re sharing their wealth or if they’re just building a giant pile of masks to sit on and stare at, like Smaug if Smaug was a germaphobe.

As I mentioned in an earlier video about COVID, these masks aren’t really effective at preventing the general population from catching the virus, but they are effective for health care professionals and people caring for the sick at home. So not only are people panic buying something they don’t need, but by doing so they’re making it more difficult for the people who actually do need them to get them.

I mention all of this first because I want to assure you that you do not need to buy these masks for this purpose. Owning one will probably not stop you from getting COVID-19. Just stop touching your face, wash your hands, and stay the fuck at home.

But I also wanted to talk about it because I saw this Tweet from an ER doctor, who writes:

“the fire department just called us

they can’t find any masks

wanted to know if they could have some of ours

we dont have any to spare

shout out to everyone who hoarded masks so doctors, nurses, EMS, and firefighters now have to beg and borrow to protect themselves”

That’s…not wrong, but it’s also not really right. Like, people buying up all the masks absolutely 100% fucks with the people who have an actual need for them, but the people most affected by that aren’t firefighters or ER doctors. It’s in-home carers and others who are in particular situations in which they’d benefit from a mask.

Because professionals who need these masks, which does include firefighters, doctors, nurses, and even the scientists who study these diseases, generally are not buying their masks at Walgreens. They were going to run out regardless of what the general public are doing. Sure, they could have run to the corner store for a few extras, but their main stock comes in bulk from distributors. Those distributors are the ones who are running into trouble, and it’s not because the distributors are looking at equivalent orders from Home Depot and the Children’s Hospital and just choosing to fulfil the Home Depot one because hell, those kids are going to die anyway.

So what is the problem? It’s multi-fold. First, half of the world’s sanitary masks (and 90% of all surgical masks in the US) are produced by China — specifically, the province where COVID-19 started, and where all society had to come to a standstill to fight the spread of the virus. They’re trying to make up for that now, by converting other factories to produce more masks and get them shipped around the world where they’re needed.

Second, the United States fucked up when it came to preparedness. The US has something called the Strategic National Stockpile, or SNS, which is several secret big-ass warehouses of medicine and other supplies that we might need for a national emergency. At the start of the year, the stockpile had about 12 million N-95 masks. The US will likely need upwards of 3.5 billion masks over the next year.

This isn’t a surprise. Researchers have known for years that a pandemic was likely, and that we were underprepared, but Trump disbanded the National Security Council in charge of shoring up our reserves. Back in 2018, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health warned Congress that “When you have a respiratory virus that can be spread by droplets and aerosol and … there’s a degree of morbidity associated with that, you can have a catastrophe. … The one that we always talk about is the 1918 pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people. … Influenza first, or something like influenza, is the one that keeps me up at night.” Scientists knew that this was a question of “when,” not “if,” but the Trump administration dismissed their concerns and cut the National Security Council in half. That’s why there aren’t enough masks, that’s why there aren’t enough tests, and that’s why the US is plunging headfirst into a national disaster that could have been handled six weeks ago.

Trump also moved oversight of the Strategic National Stockpile from the CDC to the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and they apparently have no idea how to handle this emergency. Back when the first COVID-19 cases hit in Washington at the end of February, the state requested hundreds of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment from the Stockpile. They got less than half. They had to fight with the HHS for two more days before they agreed to fulfill the rest of the request. Now they need more, and so does California and New York. Soon the entire country will need them, and the Stockpile will not have enough because it wasn’t being run by the people who warned us that this would happen.

So yes, you shouldn’t be out there stockpiling masks. They probably won’t help you anyway. If you have extra, please consider donating them to local hospitals or nursing homes.

But also, don’t be so quick to blame the mask shortage on the actions of scared individuals. Those individuals aren’t being educated by their government on what they need to survive, they’re not being reassured by their government’s (in)action regarding this pandemic, and they sure as hell aren’t the ones whose job it was to make sure the country was prepared for this emergency. That was our government.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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