Making the Mask Situation Better — for Now and the Future

Experts are developing innovative ways to deal with mask shortages and lay the groundwork for better options going forward

Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog
3 min readApr 14, 2020

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The United States has a shameful shortage of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, for health workers on the front lines. Thankfully, a variety of groups — from companies like 3M to neighborhood sewing teams to science labs — are working to fill the gaps.

One of those groups is the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation. Among its many projects, people there are brainstorming new ways to make personal protective equipment. Jeff Karp, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is leading a team that’s focused on how to meet the urgent need for N95 masks in the short term and how these kinds of protection products could be better in the long term.

The team is working on new designs for masks and thinking about how to source new materials that have good filtration and breathability. Some of the challenges with making N95 masks or a newer version, according to Karp, include being able to sterilize and reuse the masks, the cost and time to make them, the fact that many of the N95 masks require injection molding that can take two to four weeks to complete, technical challenges like making sure the masks can filter properly (they have to block the virus and allow for breathability), and material availability. Companies like 3M are using a lot of the usual materials from the market to make masks, yet there’s still a mask shortage. What are the other options?

Looking forward, Karp and the team are thinking about issues of sustainability. Discarded face masks and other plastics are causing waste buildup in some places. “This pandemic has really facilitated more self-awareness for a lot of different things,” says Karp. “It could be an opportunity to reflect on what’s most important and do some deep thinking about how to capitalize on all the people who are at home doing self-reflection and thinking about how to make the world a better place.”

It could be a moment to get more people on board with sustainable material manufacturing—though one major problem is that biodegradable materials can be expensive. “We can consider using those materials, but they are 1.25 to 10 times more expensive,” says Karp. “I think that can change, but it has to…

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that