The COVID Masks

Cloth Masks, April 2020

First responders have rules and protocols they need to follow in various situations. For respiratory pathogens (like tuberculosis, ebola, and COVID-19), the protocol was for the responder to don an N95 or better (or HEPA) mask and then place one on the patient. I am not making this up; if I failed to use proper PPE as described here, I could be fired, and if I didn’t remember it on the medical text I had to take, I could fail:

from page 32, EMR Complete: A Worktext, Second Edition, 2014,

However, as the national emergency of COVID-19 was declared and most of the governors in the United States (including Tennessee) ordered everything closed down, my station didn’t have any N95 masks. Nor could any regular person get them. After saying twice that masks don’t work against COVID, Fauci and the CDC suddenly declared we had to wear masks. And these are the masks all the regular people wore when going outside

At first, all we had was bandanas and scarves. Most people already had these in their wardrobe. Almost every major store chain limited the number of people who could go inside a building and required a facial covering. I remember standing outside in a long line outside Costco with a light scarf wrapped around my lower face. I still have a bandana that was sold by a local brewery for $10 so customers could go inside to buy a pint.

Bandana sold by a local business, May 2020.
Bandana sold by a local business, May 2020. Typical facemasks as we got to know them were still widely unavailable commercially.

The paper surgical masks weren’t available either, but a whole lot of ingenious crafty people and businesses got to work making masks out of fabric. These were the masks most of us bought and collected and wore until mid-2021.

Cloth Masks, April 2020
The top mask is a two-layer cotton mask made from a popular pattern at the time. It is modelled after a surgical mask, and has fabric ties instead of elastic, because elastic was also very quickly in short supply due to sudden demand. The bottom mask was one manufactured within one week from a Tennessee sock factory, and which was given away free upon request to any Tennessean who stopped by a testing center.

There were no standards for the masks. I had one (now lost) which was nothing more than a piece of stretchy fabric with slits cut for the ears and with a logo on it. Etsy crafters had a boon creating all sorts of masks for reasonable prices. I had a Thanksgiving mask that was curved to fit the face, and had three layers of thick fabric, along with an extra cotton insert. None of these fit tightly enough to disallow air from going out. Medical N95 masks were not sold anywhere. Industrial N95 masks were quickly snatched up for medical use whenever they were seen, and were thus also in short supply.

N95 Mask
This is an N95 mask from Home Depot, circa 2022. From March of 2020 until late 2021 they were hard to find.

Airlines required passengers to wear masks, but bandanas were perfectly fine until early 2021, when the new Biden administration set up new FAA regulations requiring masks to firmly cover nose and chin. By then, the paper surgical masks were widely available again, so passengers with masks that were unacceptable (although they had been acceptable the year before) could be given a mask to wear.

At the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022, the US government gave out free P95 masks (like the one below.) I got one, but the by the time I got it, I was vaccinated, masks were no longer required, I could find N95 masks at my local Home Depot, and I had two bags full of cloth masks that weren’t being used any more. So that’s the mask history in a capsule. Inappropriate for the situation, unavailable, homemade, mandated, and government-issued…a year after the crisis is effectively over.

P95 Mask
These masks were given away freely upon request at local pharmacies, up to 2 at a time. By the time they were available, vaccines had been widely available for almost a year and only a few places still had mask mandates.

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