Shops stock N95 masks in preparation for smoke season

By Veronica Irwin

By Veronica Irwin

Examiner staff writer

Remember 16 months ago, when panic buying and a disrupted global supply chain led to a shortage of toilet paper?

In case you forgot, it was only a couple weeks later that personal protective equipment — and especially N95 respirator masks — became a rarity, too. PPE is still in short supply, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, despite the fact that major suppliers have increased production capacity since the start of the pandemic.

Those of us not working in health care or tasked with restocking PPE at a store may have been blissfully unaware of the shortage. From cheap surgical face coverings to branded Etsy creations, masks are everywhere; sometimes it seems as though we’ll be pulling them from couch cushions and beneath car seats for the rest of our lives.

But not all masks are created equal. Nor do they all offer the same level of protection from COVID-19 or smoke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still argue N95 masks should be prioritized for health care workers, and that well-fitting cloth masks offer enough protection against COVID-19 for most people.

With the delta variant on the rise and wildfire season approaching (and in some areas of Northern California, already here), however, local stores are noticing increased demand. The Examiner called 17 retail locations that have been known to carry N95 masks in fire seasons past. All but one said more customers had been asking for them. Luckily, only three noticed a significant supply squeeze, with all saying it was still reasonably easy to keep masks in stock.

“We have a stash that’s about as big as it usually is, which is 50,000 or so KN95 masks,” says Eugene Lee, general manager of Western Gravel & Roofing Supply. While N95s are given the stamp of approval by the FDA, KN95s are the Chinese equivalent and often easier to procure in the United States. They’re also condoned by the CDC for non-medical use, unlike N95s.

Lee, who had a day named after him in the city of Alameda for the extraordinary scale of his mask donations during the 2019 fire season, says he always keeps some extras stocked. “We know wildfire season happens, and all my staff will need to have them, and customers will need to have them, and I’ll probably go right back to donating them to people in need.”

N95 masks without small, three-dimensional exhalation valves offer top-tier protection against wildfire smoke and the coronavirus, while those with the small exhalation valve still offer decent protection against ash and smoke for outdoor use or otherwise low-COVID risk situations. Masks with the valve allow exhaled air to escape virtually unabated, offering little protection to other people in close proximity. But the addition of a cloth mask underneath or over a mask with a valve can mitigate COVID spreading as well as protect users against heart and lung disease-triggering wildfire smoke particles.

Store representatives said demand for masks has increased significantly in the last week and a half, after a months-long decrease in purchases, aligning with the timeline in which seven Bay Area counties began strongly recommending that people wear masks indoors. It also aligns with California’s largest wildfire this year, the Dixie Fire, which began nearly two weeks ago. Four shopkeepers noted that while there had been little-to-no interest in masks with a valve a few weeks ago, now there’s demand for both N95 varieties.

Even if consumers haven’t been thinking far ahead, retailers in The City have been prepping. “Ever since the drought hit about six years ago, we’ve been habitually carrying a lot of masks in our backstock, just for such an event,” says Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware. “We saw the writing on the wall.”

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