Expert calls for free N95 masks as retailers sell out

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

With the highly contagious Omicron variant in the community there are calls for the Government to update mask advice and provide medical grade options to the public.

Last year, Austria and Germany banned cloth masks for use in shops and on public transport.

Four-hundred million N95 masks are being made available for Americans at pharmacies and health centres as the nation grapples with over 700,000 new cases a day.

But KN95 or N95 masks, which both filter out about 95 per cent of airborne particles, are proving almost impossible to source for Kiwi shoppers, with retailers from St John to Bunnings selling out completely on their websites.

On Trade Me, boxes of 50 N95 masks are selling for $175.

Office Products Depot is one of the few New Zealand businesses that still has a good supply of KN95 and N95 masks, but they supply to businesses, rather than to individual consumers.

Spokesperson Terese Coughey says there’s been a massive boost in sales.

“The demand for the K95 and N95 masks at Office Products Depot have been absolutely huge for us - our sales have jumped 2000% just in the last two days. However, we've been extremely lucky that our suppliers and our procurement team have been all over it and we've been able to source lots of product.”

File image of an N95-type mask.

Coughey says she feels for members of the public who can’t get their hands on the masks.

“Some of the prices out there have just skyrocketed. I really do feel sorry for people at the moment, it really is an in-demand product.”

On Monday, Google search data showed search terms for N95 masks reached a record high in New Zealand. The regions that showed the most interest in the term, between Sunday and Monday, included the West Coast, Tasman District and Marlborough.

University of Otago public health researcher Lucy Telfar-Barnard says she wants to see our government provide free KN95, N95 or P2 masks to the public, starting with our most vulnerable communities.

“The level of filtration that you get with the N95 is higher than with those other masks and more importantly they do tend to fit really well on the face and do provide a much better seal than particularly the surgicals. Cloth masks often fit well but don’t provide that level of filtration.

“Ideally we would start with seven masks per person so that we've got a fresh one every day of the week, we can then set it aside for the rest of the week, and it will be good to use again in a week's time…They are re-usable so long as the elastic on them is still fitting your head well and so long as they’re not become distorted or misshapen, then they’re still good to use.”

The Ministry of Health says guidance on mask use is currently being reviewed, and that we have a good supply of N95 masks. In Sunday's press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wouldn’t commit to providing them free for the public.

“It's not something we've considered at this stage. I know obviously that many, many people have face mask coverings, it's just providing the advice of what we know is the most effective.”

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says N95s need to be fitted properly.

“Our workforces who are using those masks in the healthcare system and at the border have proper fit testing because if they're not fitted properly then they can be less effective than other masks.”

Bloomfield says further advice on mask use will be provided later in the week.