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Biden Promises Free Masks for All Americans. Who Makes Them?

The Biden administration is rolling out the biggest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history. But who makes the masks?

The Biden administration has said it will make 400 million highly protective N95 masks available free to Americans at pharmacies and community health centers around the U.S., the biggest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

The masks will start to become available late next week, and the program will be fully up and running by early February, according to a White House official. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in updated guidance published last week, said N95 respirators are more effective at prevention transmission of the Covid omicron variant than cloth and surgical masks are.

But who makes the masks, and how can American consumers know they're up to par in protecting them against Covid-19?

What Are N95 Masks?

N95 masks and their international counterparts known as KN95s and KF94s are often made of multiple layers of polypropylene, a synthetic fiber. 

They are designed to achieve a very snug facial fit, with straps that go around the back of the head and edges that form a tight seal around the nose and mouth.

Worn correctly N95 respirators are designed to filter out at least 95% of particulate matter in the air, preventing anything larger than 0.3 micron from passing through.

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KN95s and KF94s are certified in China and South Korea, respectively, and offer similar protection to N95 masks. KF stands for "Korean filter" and indicates 94% filtration.

But plenty of knockoffs are out there. Masks with an exhaust valve do not prevent the spread of the virus to other people. Indeed, the CDC has warned that about 60% of KN95 respirators it tested in 2020 and 2021 are below standards.

A-to-Z List of Approved N95 Mask Makers

The CDC with the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory provides an A-to-Z list of companies that are authorized to produce N95 masks using criteria approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or Niosh.

Niosh in 2018 entered a memorandum of understanding with the Food and Drug Administration, giving it the authority to approve surgical N95 filtering facepiece respirators. Niosh also provides a table of the surgical N95 respirators approved prior to the memorandum.

At the top of list is 3M  (MMM) - Get 3M Company Report, which produces a laundry list of different models of N95 masks that meet the CDC’s criteria. 

Other companies, including Honeywell  (HON) - Get Honeywell International Inc. Report, GlaxoSmithKline  (GSK) - Get GlaxoSmithKline Plc Report and Kimberly- Clark  (KMB) - Get Kimberly-Clark Corporation Report, also mass-produce the masks, alongside myriad private companies in the U.S. and abroad.

The CDC provides a full list of approved N95 mask manufacturers as well as an approval number. 

If you believe a surgical N95 respirator is missing from the list, you can contact the CDC or the FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health to determine a respirator’s approval status. 

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