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Amazon, Facebook and Google N95 mask restrictions at odds with expert advice

Scientists are urging Americans to upgrade their protection, but their options are limited by politics and bureaucracy.

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JOE CICAK

The restrictions on the sale of N95 masks by Google, Facebook and Amazon is indicative of a broader, national divide over the best course of action for average people looking to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.

One year into a global pandemic that has claimed 515,000 lives in the United States and 2.54 million lives globally, messaging on best mask-wear is still inconsistent at best and contradictory at worst.

Many state governments seem to be sending the message that the worst is over and masks are no longer as necessary. On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state-wide mask mandate with an executive order, following similar orders by Gov. Kim Reynolds in Iowa, Gov. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas, Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri and Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) still recommends that N95 masks be reserved for healthcare professionals.

Foreign governments and independent experts, however, don't agree. Both the German and French governments are requiring citizens to wear FFP1 or FFP2 masks (roughly the equivalent of American NIOSH N95 masks) in public, at work, or in shops. Domestically, Harvard Health Professor Joseph G. Allen recommended in the Washington Post that all Americans wear N95s.

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"There’s no reason any essential worker — and, really, everyone in the country — should go without masks that filter 95 percent," Dr. Allen said. "The masks I’m referring to, of course, are N95s. These are cheap — pre-pandemic they cost about 50 cents — and easy to manufacture."

Further complicating the matter, Amazon, Facebook and Google have all independently either banned or severely limited the sale of N95 respirator masks since April 2020. If you search for “N95” on Amazon, you'll receive a list of inferior (though still effective) KN95 masks. Customers who find N95 masks for sale will often see huge price markups and restrictions on products “prioritized for organizations on the front lines responding to COVID-19.” The masks that are mostly sold directly from the manufacturer.

"Last year, when the demand far outweighed the supply for certain PPE items like N95 masks, Amazon listened to our healthcare and government customers on the front lines of the pandemic and prioritized this type of PPE inventory for them in order to meet their urgent need," an Amazon spokesperson told us over email. "Since then, we have continually monitored inventory of these supplies to be able to meet the needs of all customers—we currently offer a significant number of N95 masks to consumers and will continue making more available, while also ensuring we have supply available for healthcare workers.”

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High prices and limits on sales imply a mask shortage, but the truth is the opposite: Many companies pivoted toward N95 production during the pandemic, investing millions of dollars, only to struggle to get the life-saving equipment to wanting customers. One company, Demetech, told the NY Times that it has 30 million unsold N95 masks in warehouses that can’t find buyers.

Other manufacturers simply don’t know why their product isn’t being embraced.

“There’s no reason N95 shouldn’t be the norm,” said Paul Shrater, Chief Business Officer of Advoque Safeguard. His company shifted to N95 mask production early in the pandemic, undergoing a rigorous 4-month NIOSH certification that involved extensive analysis of its production process and virtual site-visits by CDC officials.

“We’ve seen a lot of media about how the public can now be using N95, and should be, but there’s a supply gap,” Shrater explained. “The country, the industry, the government – everyone needs to be working together on connecting those dots. It can actually assist the national health if someone pulls the trigger on this.”

Another vendor, WellBefore, anticipated greater interest and regular wear of N95 masks in the future.

"I do firmly believe that N95, KN95 or highly effective 3-PLY masks should be the standard for masks," said founder and CEO Shahzil Amin. "I can't say why the U.S. government mandate differs from the experts on this."

In February, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical advisor, said that masks could be necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until the end of 2021. He also called the United States' handling of the pandemic "worse than most any other country."

The CDC currently offers these 7 tips on effective mask wearing in public.

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This article has been edited to include a comment from Amazon.