Why the N95 mask shortage is more complicated than “there aren’t enough masks” — and why it’s OK to buy N95 masks to protect yourself and others
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the CDC and other health authorities often repeated the same refrain: Wear masks, but don’t buy N95 masks, because there’s a shortage and they should be saved for healthcare workers treating infected patients in hospitals. We still hear stories about doctors and nurses wearing the same N95 mask over and over again, using makeshift methods to disinfect their limited supplies. Yet N95 masks and their cousins KN95 masks are readily available for sale online at Pandemic Pal and elsewhere — and have been since early in the pandemic.
Amid all of the confusion and chaos of this pandemic, facts are notably absent. So what is the truth? Was there a shortage of N95 masks early in the pandemic? Is there an N95 mask shortage now? Why did some hospitals and health facilities have plenty of supplies, while others struggled? If you need N95 masks for personal use, is it OK to buy them? In this article, we will answer these questions and more based on the latest information available.
Many Pandemic Pal customers are people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, those who would be at risk of life-threatening complications if they become infected with COVID-19, flu, or a variety of other communicable diseases. We want our customers and visitors to understand this situation so they can make the right decision for their circumstances. So here is our attempt to make the history of the N95 mask shortage as understandable as possible.
Is there an N95 mask shortage?
Not anymore. At the beginning of the pandemic, the answer was yes and no. What the United States faced was not so much a shortage, but a supply chain nightmare. Masks were available, but getting them to those who needed them was challenging. Here are some reasons why:
No centralized supply
Since the United States government does not have a centralized supply of masks to distribute, hospitals, medical facilities, and state and local government agencies must source personal protective equipment (PPE) for themselves. This means some medical facilities had enormous stockpiles of N95 masks, while others had an N95 mask shortage and doctors and nurses were re-wearing one-time-use respirators over and over for weeks or months at a time.
Exclusive supply contracts
Hospital corporations and nonprofits often sign exclusive contracts with large medical supply companies. If these companies can’t obtain enough supplies from manufacturers, their customers will experience an N95 mask shortage. Many doctors and dentists work in offices owned by large medical corporations who have exclusive contracts with suppliers. These hard-working medical professionals have little recourse if they do not receive adequate amounts of PPE from the company that owns their practice.
Often, medical supply companies only want to buy large quantities from a few well-known manufacturers. For example, they might only want 3M brand N95 masks ® in quantities of 100,000 or more, and be unwilling to purchase other brands or track down batches of 10,000 from various sources. Some hospitals only want to purchase N95 respirators that were originally designed for medical use, and not those made for industrial use, even though they meet the same filtration standards.
The volatile supply and shipping situation favored smaller, more nimble medical supply companies that can purchase smaller lots of PPE, as well as companies that are new to the PPE business but have an existing, reliable supply chain for importing products from overseas.
High prices have contributed to the N95 mask shortage — but in the vast majority of cases, the prices are justified by the added complications of the pandemic. This is a simple function of supply and demand — demand for filtering facepiece respirators is high and supply was relatively low, although it increased as manufacturers ramped up production. Locating supplies and dealing with smaller quantities takes skill and planning. Shipping, especially from overseas, has become more complicated and costly.
Aside from a few cases that made the news early in the pandemic, nobody is hoarding thousands of masks in their basement to resell for a mint. Medical supply companies are going through a lot of effort to obtain masks, and selling them to those in need at reasonable prices, given the current conditions.
What about medical facilities that can’t afford PPE?
Unfortunately, increased costs created N95 mask shortages for some rural hospitals and clinics treating underserved populations, who were struggling financially before the pandemic and became overwhelmed. All of the suppliers we work with have donated masks to these types of facilities, as well as nursing homes, churches, schools, and local charities.
Where do you obtain the N95 masks for sale here on Pandemic Pal?
Pandemic Pal does not sell masks directly — we are an information and support website for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities who are trying to safely navigate the pandemic. But we partner with medical supply companies who do. Their N95 respirators come from various legitimate sources, mostly the manufacturers themselves.
Our suppliers often purchase smaller quantities from businesses with excess masks. Sometimes, a large medical facility will end up with more respirators than they need and sell the extras. Some industries that typically use respirator masks, such as manufacturing, painting, etc. are currently shut down or operating at limited capacity, and therefore have masks to sell.
Our suppliers also have genuine KN95 respirators for sale. Most hospitals treating COVID patients do not purchase KN95 masks, so this is another source of high-quality respirators the average person can buy.
Our suppliers do not outbid hospitals that need supplies, and are committed to ethically sourcing the products they sell. They provide many masks, both sold and donated, to medical facilities and first responders treating COVID-19 patients, as well as firefighters battling wildfires in California and Oregon.
Are the N95 masks available to the public genuine and safe?
Yes, you can buy real N95 respirators online — but where you buy them matters! Pandemic Pal only works with honest, reputable companies that are committed to offering genuine N95 masks.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the pandemic, counterfeit masks became a major issue, and they remain a problem. Fakes flooded the market, some bearing labels from reputable companies like 3M. Currently, the biggest problem at the consumer end is with fake KN95 masks, which look real but don’t come anywhere close to meeting the filtration requirements to keep you safe.
All of the companies we worked with to create this guide and that we recommend on our website are diligent about only purchasing authentic N95 and KN95 respirators. They rigorously screen vendors to avoid those with criminal backgrounds or a history of questionable transactions, and often do their own testing to make sure the N95 masks they sell are performing as advertised. They only sell KN95 masks that have been tested by the NPPTA and meet the Emergency Use Authorization requirements for filtering facepiece respirators. And they verify that their 3M N95 masks ® are authentic using the Safe Guard system on the 3M website.
Need more information? Check out our page on how to tell if an N95 mask is real or counterfeit.
Do N95 masks need to be fit tested to work?
One of the common “reasons not to buy an N95 mask” we see pop up is the claim that average non-medical users don’t know how to wear them properly. It’s true that respirator masks should be fit tested to make sure they form a tight seal around the face. But you don’t need a medical degree to make sure your respirator is sealed! It is a simple procedure you can learn to do yourself. Just watch the following video to learn how to seal test an N95 mask without fancy equipment.
To improve the seal of a KN95 mask that has ear loops, you can use an ear saver or attachable head strap to achieve a tighter fit.
Not all respirator masks fit all faces. You may need to try a few brands and styles to find the one that’s right for you. With that said, even an imperfectly sealed N95 respirator will protect you and others better than a cloth mask, because the meltblown, non-woven fabric itself filters droplets more effectively than cotton.
If I buy N95 masks, will I be taking them from doctors and nurses who need them?
No — in fact, you will be helping doctors and nurses by protecting yourself and others. The best thing you can do for yourself and for medical professionals is to not get infected. By wearing N95 / KN95 masks, you are reducing the strain on our hospitals and potentially saving your own life and the lives of everyone around you.
We support and honor the heroes risking their lives every day treating COVID patients, and the fact that some have inadequate PPE deeply disturbs us. Our suppliers sell hundreds of thousands of masks to medical facilities, government agencies, and businesses; individual mask buyers are only a portion of their customer base. If facilities need more PPE, it is available and they can buy it just as you can.
If you work at a medical facility that has an N95 mask shortage, please contact us — we can help connect you with a supplier that has the PPE you need.
How do I know if I need an N95 mask?
At this time, vaccines offer a lot of protection, but if you feel you need a mask in a particular situation, only an N95 or KN95 mask can protect you adequately from unmasked or poorly masked people around you.
Do you have a disability or chronic illness that would put you at high risk of life-threatening complications if you become infected with COVID-19?
You need an N95 mask.
Do you live with or care for a senior citizen, or someone with a chronic condition or disability?
You need N95 masks.
Are you a home health worker?
You need N95 masks. Direct support professionals such as home health aides, personal care attendants, homecare nurses etc. should wear N95 masks and of course, get vaccinated to minimize the risk to their vulnerable patients.
Are you working at a job where you have a lot of contact with the public?
You should be wearing an N95 mask, as you could be putting others at risk even if you are young and healthy.
Are you unvaccinated and throwing parties, running around without a mask, and/or doing non-essential errands?
You should not be doing any of those things. If you must go out, you should be wearing an N95 mask as you could be infected because of your past irresponsibility and asymptomatic but spreading the virus to others.
The bottom line on the N95 mask shortage
As we have explained, the N95 mask shortage is a complicated and evolving situation. But if you think you need N95 masks, if you would be able to better protect yourself and your loved ones by wearing them, you should buy them — and use them wisely. Use them as part of living responsibly during these difficult times, and you’ll be helping to save lives.
Where can I buy genuine N95 masks?
Please buy from the companies below, who have worked with us extensively to create this guide and to obtain high-quality PPE for those who need it. They all ship their products from the USA on the same or next business day, so you’ll get the medical supplies you need quickly.
Protectly offers medical masks for sale to the public at reasonable prices. They sell NIOSH-approved N95 masks including Moldex 4200, Moldex 2200, Medline 24506A N95 respirator mask, 3M 8210 N95 mask, and more. They also sell USA-made KN95 masks, face shields, disinfecting wipes, nitrile gloves, and other personal protective equipment. They ship orders within 2 business days from Oregon, USA, so you’ll get the medical supplies you need quickly!
Well Before (formerly known as Honest PPE) has the largest variety of NIOSH-approved respirator masks listed on our site, including 3M N95 masks, the most trusted brand in the industry. They carry the 3M 1860 respirator, which is rated for surgical use and fluid-resistant, as well as 3M 8210, 3M 8200, 3M 9205+, 3M 8511, and other 3M models. Other NIOSH-approved respirator choices include AOK 20180016-L, Harley L-188, Harley L-288, Makrite SEKURA-321, Makrite N95 9500 and Makrite N95 9600. They also have KN95 masks for sale, and other medical supplies such as face shields, hand sanitizers, wipes, and gloves. N95 mask orders ship within 2 business days. Check them out!
Didn’t find what you need? Check out our main N95 masks for sale page for more information.