Harvard professor, doctors: “Everyone needs N95 masks”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak death and economic destruction throughout the world, scientists and medical experts are speaking out about what they call an “essential” tool in reducing viral spread during the vaccine rollout: better masks.

Joseph Allen, Associate Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been a leader in the call for getting high filtration masks, or hi-fi masks, to essential workers. According to Allen, studies show a cloth mask only captures about half of the respiratory droplets released when a person talks or breathes, compared to an N95 mask that filters 95% of aerosols. While any mask is better than no mask, widespread usage of high-filtration masks could make a substantial dent in the spread of the coronavirus. “There’s no reason any essential worker — and, really, everyone in the country — should go without masks that filter 95 percent,” Allen said.

Patient advocate Karin Willison agreed. “I’ve known since the pandemic started that cloth masks were not safe enough for people with disabilities like me, and our loved ones and caregivers.” Willison runs Pandemic Pal, a resource hub that helps people with chronic illnesses and essential workers find genuine N95 masks and other medical supplies. According to Willison, one of the biggest barriers to widespread usage of hi-fi masks is lack of awareness that they are available to the public and not just for healthcare workers. She agrees with Allen that respirators are key to reducing the strain on hospitals and ending the pandemic. “N95 masks are for everyone!”

Allen’s Harvard Medical School colleagues, physicians Abraar Karan and Ranu Dhillon, along with patient advocate Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, have proposed a National Hi-Fi Mask Initiative for the United States. This program would utilize the Defense Production Act to scale up the manufacture of high-filtration masks and make them available at lower prices. President Biden has also proposed sending a mask to every American as part of his 100-day masking challenge.

Willison noted that the high price of respirator masks is an ongoing issue affecting low-income communities that have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and favors a targeted approach rather than a mass mailing. “We need to make sure seniors and people with chronic conditions, essential workers and others at high risk are protected.”