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A year into pandemic, federal officials design new mask guidelines to better protect more workers

Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Federal officials announced new measures to help get fresh, new N95 masks to health care workers and expand their use in other industries after scientists argued that the highly protective masks are essential to keep workers safe from COVID-19.

The changes come as U.S. mask-makers say the demand from hospitals is so sluggish that they’ve laid off 2,000 workers and fear some new protective gear companies could collapse. Yet in a letter to lawmakers, hospitals cite ongoing concerns about scarce supplies, saying limits on which workers should get N95s must stay in place.

Among the new moves: The Food and Drug Administration plans to eventually revoke its approval of the widespread crisis-era practice of decontaminating N95 respirators and returning them to front-line workers to use again.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official also announced a tweak to its guidelines, which used to say the protective N95 respirators were reserved for health workers. Now they are “prioritized” for those workers but will be OK for bulk sales to other employers — a step that should boost overall demand.

A group of prominent scientists had written to the White House in February, saying a broader swath of U.S. workers need more protection from the airborne virus. And on March 1, U.S. mask-makers wrote to President Joe Biden decrying a glut of nearly 300 million N95 or equivalent respirators that were made in this country and sitting unused in warehouses.

KHN also reported that in January federal officials approved the export of U.S. N95s amid mounting unsold inventory, a move a nurses union leader called “unconscionable.”

 

Lloyd Armbrust, president of the American Mask Manufacturers Association, took a career U-turn to launch Armbrust American and start making masks near Austin, Texas, last year, troubled by “cheap, flimsy” personal protective equipment coming in from overseas: “We … decided to take matters into our own hands.” He said that he was gratified to see federal officials respond to U.S. mask-makers’ concerns and that he expects to see sales rise in coming months.

But he said it’s been a shock for the upstart industry to try and fail over many months to break into the U.S. health care market — dominated by large group purchasing organizations — where the preference to buy from China is ingrained.

“Who knows how many health care workers are getting infected, maybe dying, because of a logistics problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. “That was very frustrating. As a human, that was hard for me to understand.”

Armbrust said about 50 U.S. mask-makers the association represents reported in a survey that they’ve collectively laid off about 2,000 workers in recent months amid sluggish demand. They expect some companies to fail.

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