• N95 respirator masks are favored by healthcare workers at the COVID-19 frontlines
  • The production of 95% of these masks have been redirected towards healthcare use
  • Some masks are still being sold at supermarkets despite healthcare shortage

By force of circumstance, the N95 NIOSH particulate respirator masks made by 3M has become the go-to gear for healthcare workers that want maximum protection from inhaling the COVID-19 coronavirus.

A nationwide shortage of N95s at the start of the COVID-19 crisis in January forced 3M to boost production of this vital respirator. At the end of January, 3M said it was “ramping to full production" and "going 24/7" in N95 production.

The company also made a promise much of the new N95s produced will go to healthcare workers in the frontlines of the national fight against COVID-19. 3M lived-up its word about production. Distribution was another thing, however.

3M chairman and CEO Mike Roman said Monday he isn't happy to find out 3M N95 respirator masks needed by healthcare workers are still being sold at some retail stores such a Target in Seattle.

“It’s disappointing when you see that because we’re trying to redirect everything to healthcare workers,” said Roman on CNBC. “We’re ready to expedite respirators to wherever they’re needed."

On Sunday, 3M sent to New York and Seattle over 500,000 N95s in response to the ongoing shortage of healthcare equipment. Roman said some 350,000 should arrive in New York on Monday.

Before Sunday, news reports and video showed a Target in Seattle with shelves full of the N95s. Target has apologized and said it's reviewing its inventory for additional masks. Roman believes the N95s at Target might be existing inventory that only now found it way to the shelves.

“There was some inventory, as you would expect, throughout the supply chain from what was happening even as we came into 2020,” according to Roman. “About 90% of our respirators go to industrial customers, sometimes through retail channels, in a normal business environment.”

3M has since shifted more than 90% of its masks to healthcare workers, while the rest goes to “other industries also critical in this pandemic” such as food, energy and pharmaceuticals companies.

n95 mask coronavirus
n95 mask coronavirus geralt - Pixabay

3M has been manufacturing some 100 million N95 masks per month since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 35 million per month are being produced in the U.S.

Roman said 3M’s shifting the bulk of its N95s toward healthcare workers came on March 2 after a regulatory change from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The move allowed respirator masks the FDA isn't regulating to be used by healthcare workers. This new rule included certain N95 masks.

“All of that allowed us to shift what are normally industrial respirators, the N95, over to healthcare workers. It gave us the certification that we needed to be able to do that,” according to Roman. He said other companies in areas such as logistics are working with 3M to help it continue to expand its capacity.