Cloth masks are out, N95s are in. Here's what you need to know

Brooks Johnson, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

Early in the pandemic, the general public was discouraged from buying N95 masks over fear there wouldn’t be enough for health care workers. That’s no longer the case.

As the highly contagious omicron variant causes record COVID-19 cases across the U.S., people are swapping in N95 masks for their old cloth face coverings to better ward off the virus.

N95 respirators are proven to provide high levels of protection against the droplets that cause infections leading to COVID-19 — and many doctors and public health experts are now advocating for their use among the general population.

"We strongly support people wearing more effective facepieces, including respirators," wrote researchers at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Early in the pandemic, the general public was discouraged from buying these masks over fear there wouldn't be enough for health care workers. That's no longer the case.

The center's director, Michael Osterholm, said Tuesday there is "more than adequate stock for health care workers as well as the general public."


N95 masks are much easier to find now than in early 2020 after manufacturers, like Maplewood-based 3M, ramped up production.

"You can get them at all the different retail outlets, home improvement stores, online in places you'd expect," said Raymond Eby, president of 3M's personal safety division. "The demand is increasing tremendously, but as of right now we're able to supply those outlets."

Robust respirator production is likely needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is poised to recommend daily N95 and KN95 use for those who can tolerate it, according to the Washington Post.

3M is the largest producer of N95s in the United States and went to around-the-clock production nearly two years ago, eventually tripling production capabilities over 2019 levels.


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