Half a Million N95 Masks Are on Their Way to New York and Seattle, Manufacturer Says

(The Washington Post) -
N95 Respirator Mask. (fda.gov)

A large manufacturer of protective N95 masks for medical workers said it is shipping half a million masks to New York and Seattle, with arrivals starting Monday.

3M said it is ready to rush additional shipments across the country and will almost double production of the masks over the next year, to an annual rate of 2 billion masks worldwide. That is a bigger increase than the 30% boost the company announced Friday.

A 3M factory in South Dakota is now producing 35 million N95 masks a month, 90% of which the company is selling for health-care workers after a change in law last week eliminated the threat of lawsuits from such sales.

The other 10% will go to industrial workers who are “also critical in this pandemic,” in sectors including energy, food and pharmaceuticals, 3M Chairman and CEO Mike Roman said in a statement Sunday.

The change signed into law Wednesday protects manufacturers from liability when selling N95 masks to the health-care sector that were designed for industrial use. Both types filter at least 95% of airborne particles but can vary in design and fit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The liability protection covers certain types of disposable N95 masks designed for industrial use, and some that are past their expiration date, if they’ve been safely stored and are in good condition, the Food and Drug Administration said in a March 2 letter. The FDA said the benefits of using such masks, also known as respirators, outweighed the risks, given the widespread shortages in hospitals.

“Based on the totality of scientific evidence available to FDA, it is reasonable to believe that the authorized respirators may be effective in preventing [health-care worker] exposure to pathogenic biological airborne particulates” amid shortages, the FDA said. It added that “the known and potential benefits of the authorized respirators . . . outweigh the known and potential risks of such product.”

The letter did not elaborate on the benefits and risks.

Previously, the South Dakota factory sold the bulk of its masks to industrial customers, with about 14% going to health-care workers, Vice President Mike Pence said last week. Masks for health-care workers typically have to be manufactured on production lines certified by the Food and Drug Administration. Masks for construction workers and other industrial users are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

3M also manufactures the masks in Europe, Asia and Latin America. “Our products are being similarly deployed to support the COVID-19 response in those respective regions,” Roman said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.