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Baldwin, other Democrats back $5B proposal to send an N95 mask to every American

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Virus Outbreak Washington

Linsey Jones, a medical assistant working at a drive-up COVID-19 testing clinic, wears an N95 mask, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Puyallup, Wash., south of Seattle. People using the facility, which is being run by the Pierce County Dept. of Emergency Management, faced waits of several hours for testing.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is among more than 50 Democrats in Congress to back a proposal that would send an N95 mask to every American.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic I’ve been calling on the U.S. government to increase the national production of the medical supplies we need to fight this public health crisis. I have long supported unlocking the full power of the Defense Production Act to scale up production of Made in America personal protective equipment and medical supplies, including N95 masks,” Baldwin said in a statement. “As Americans are urged to upgrade the quality of the masks they wear, I want to make sure everyone has access to an American-made N95 mask, and this legislation will help make that happen and save lives.” 

According to the FDA: "An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles ... The edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth," and is firm-fitting, unlike loose-fitting surgical masks that are more readily available and typically seen worn by hospital staff regardless of if there is a pandemic.

The proposal has been spearheaded by progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"Not all face masks are created equal," Sanders said in a statement. "Congress must demand the mass production and distribution of N95 masks, one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the COVID virus. It is an absolute scandal that in the richest country in the history of the world, high-quality masks are not more readily available to frontline workers, health care workers, and all Americans. We are proposing that we do what our public health experts and scientists say we must do: provide all of our people with high-quality, N95 masks without cost, which could prevent death and suffering and save huge amounts of health care dollars."

The bill includes an allocation of $5 billion to pay for manufacturing the masks within the U.S. The masks would be delivered to households via the Postal Service as well as being distributed to "prisons, shelters, college dorms, and assisted living facilities, as well as all workers in health care settings, including doctors, nurses, clinical staff, and support staff from administrative and janitorial, to food service."

Nothing vs. cloth vs. N95

Continued research has shown that wearing just about any mask is preferable to wearing no mask in terms of preventing the spread of disease, but the N95 mask is considered to be far superior in preventing the spread of nasal or oral droplets that may carry the novel coronavirus that causes the illness we know as COVID-19.

A report based on federal research published by the Wall Street Journal found that the estimated time it takes to transmit COVID-19 from one person who is infected to one person who isn't is about 15 minutes if neither are masked, about 27 minutes if both are wearing cloth masks, 2.5 hours if only one is wearing an N95 mask and 25 hours if both are wearing N95 masks.

Among of the reasons cloth masks caught on so much more was that they were more easily made by the public, and the more effective N95 masks were largely reserved for health care workers and first responders as they remained in short supply earlier in the pandemic.

A release from Baldwin's office said that "Studies indicate universal mask wearing could save the U.S. economy $1 trillion," although there's no indication that simply providing masks would lead to more people wearing masks.

An Ipsos poll conducted in late October and early November 2021 — prior to the ongoing spikes in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths — found that 35% of Americans said they were wearing a mask at all times when outside their home. That was up from 29% in summer 2021, but far below the peak of 75% in January 2021.

This is, in part, because a coronavirus particle is approximately 0.12 micrometers in diameter, while a Nepalese study, published in 2019, found that the size of the pores in cloth masks are rarely smaller than 80 micrometers and are often as big as 500 micrometers.

According to an international study published last year: "N95 masks are designed to remove more than 95% of all particles that are at least 0.3 micrometers in diameter. In fact, measurements of the particle filtration efficiency of N95 masks show that they are capable of filtering approximately 99.8% of particles with a diameter of approximately 0.1 micrometer. SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus approximately 0.1 micrometer in diameter, so N95 masks are capable of filtering most free virions, but they do more than that. How so? Viruses are often transmitted through respiratory droplets produced by coughing and sneezing."

Dr. Leana Wen, a physician affiliated with the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN: “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of Omicron. We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask. You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”

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