Everything You Need to Know About N95 Masks, and Why Everyone Wants One for the Covid-19 Fight

President Donald Trump has scolded major U.S. manufacturers and invoked the Defense Production Act over, in part, face masks. In particular, masks are known as N95 respirators.

“We’ve already leveraged the [Act] to stop the hoarding and price gouging of crucial supplies,” Trump told reporters at the April 3 coronavirus media briefing. “Under that authority, this week, the Department of Health and Human Services, working with the Justice Department, took custody of nearly 200,000 N95 respirators.”

Surgical masks, glove, and disinfectant sprays were also confiscated.

By now, many have heard of the N95 respirator. It is the mask designed to protect doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 battle

But what exactly is an N95, and how has a product that retails for about $1 ended up in the middle of a media firestorm? Here’s everything you need to know:

What Exactly Is an N95?

An N95 is a type of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“If you said PPE two months ago…people would say what is that,” said Robert Anderson, former vice president of R&D for the 3M (ticker: MMM) Safety and Graphics division. “It’s a part of our common language now.”

Anderson was speaking on a conference call Credit Suisse hosted Thursday for investors eager to understand recent news.

N95, like other PPE, wasn’t in the American vernacular until recently either. N95 isn’t a brand name. It means the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small—0.3 micron—test particles. A micron is one-millionth of a meter, and viruses are in the range of 0.3 microns.

These are higher-tech products, filtering more and offering more protection than basic surgical or cloth masks. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unit—is responsible for approving mask design and manufacturing.

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