Mask up, world!
Mask up, world!

The recent arrival of COVID-19’s omi­cron vari­ant served as an excel­lent reminder that the nov­el coro­n­avirus is a wily pathogen that is quite capa­ble of mutat­ing and frus­trat­ing our efforts to bring one of his­to­ry’s worst pan­demics under control.

With com­mu­ni­ty spread up and the risk of infec­tion grow­ing, now is a good time to stock up on essen­tial pro­tec­tive sup­plies as well as review­ing safe­ty pro­to­cols and recon­sid­er­ing trav­el and gath­er­ing plans. (And, of course, if you haven’t got­ten a third vac­cine dose, make an appoint­ment now to get that done!)

If you do decide to spend time indoors with peo­ple you don’t live with, it will be eas­i­er to make an effort to min­i­mize your risk if you have a good set of masks on hand, as well as a stash of at-home COVID-19 tests.

Hap­pi­ly, you can avoid the risk of coun­ter­feit goods and sup­port small busi­ness­es right here in the Unit­ed States if you know where to go. Below are some options for pick­ing up masks, tests, and oth­er PPE if you’d like to be pre­pared for the next drea­ry phase of the pan­dem­ic, which is like­ly to last a few more weeks at least.

What masks should I get?

Espe­cial­ly with omi­cron rag­ing, it’s a good idea to have a stock of KN95 and N95 masks on hand to use as your default face cov­er­ing. While cloth masks are cer­tain­ly bet­ter than no mask, KN95s and N95s pro­vide more pro­tec­tion, as Stan­ford infec­tious dis­eases doc­tor Abraar Karan explained to New York Mag­a­zine’s Chas Dan­ner in an inter­view that was pub­lished today.

Why should peo­ple start using high-fil­tra­tion masks like N95s and KN95s as their go-to, every­day masks rather than cloth ones?
The key rea­son is that trans­mis­sion of the coro­n­avirus is pri­mar­i­ly through aerosols, which float around in the air — you inhale them — and are not fil­tered well by cloth masks. You real­ly need melt-blown polypropy­lene, which you find in sur­gi­cal masks and N95s, to stop these small particles.

So the mate­ri­als used to make these masks make them bet­ter equipped to fil­ter out the virus?
Yeah. The mate­r­i­al is basi­cal­ly melt-blown poly­mers, like polypropy­lene, which form this com­plex sort of web­bing which is then elec­tro­sta­t­i­cal­ly charged, and that pulls the par­ti­cles in when you’re inhal­ing and exhal­ing. Cloth masks are often just woven thread and oth­er mate­ri­als that don’t have that design. Cloth masks don’t pro­vide great source con­trol, either. The CDC is now let­ting peo­ple who test pos­i­tive for COVID-19 stop iso­lat­ing after five days and then wear a mask for five days. It would have been ide­al for them to also rec­om­mend that be a bet­ter mask.

How many should you get? Prob­a­bly at least one for every day of the week. Dr. Karan told Dan­ner that N95s and KN95s can be reused.

How often can you reuse them? Does the elec­tro­sta­t­ic charge that attracts the par­ti­cles wear off?
Peter Tsai, the sci­en­tist who invent­ed the mate­r­i­al used in N95s, has said that you could reuse them for a while and rec­om­mend­ed buy­ing sev­en masks and using a dif­fer­ent one each day while let­ting the oth­ers sit out. Exact­ly how long the charge lasts, I think, real­ly depends on the envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions — humid­i­ty and sweat and things like that. But it’s up to the gov­ern­ment to fig­ure out how long an aver­age per­son could use it. I think these are things that the CDC real­ly should have been look­ing into.

They’ve had a year and a half now. It’s crazy.

How has Omi­cron, which is clear­ly the most trans­mis­si­ble vari­ant yet, changed your per­son­al approach to man­ag­ing your COVID risk, includ­ing when you decide to mask up out­side of the hospital?
The trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty issue is a huge one, and masks are com­plete­ly tied to that. The chances of catch­ing COVID in tran­sient or fleet­ing inter­ac­tions, like being in the gro­cery store for a few min­utes or being face-to-face with some­body for a con­ver­sa­tion — I think It’s far more like­ly that I could get trans­mis­sion now with this vari­ant than with any oth­ers in the past. It changes my risk calculus.

The full inter­view is here if you’d like to read it.

Sad­ly, fakes are every­where… the CDC advis­es that a whop­ping 60% or so of KN95 res­pi­ra­tors in the Unit­ed States are coun­ter­feit (fake) and do not meet NIOSH (Nation­al Insti­tute for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health) requirements.

What tests should I get?

For test­ing pur­pos­es, you want a viral test, as opposed to an anti­body test.

Here’s the CDC’s primer on viral tests:

A viral test tells you if you are infect­ed with SARS-CoV­‑2, the virus that caus­es COVID-19. There are two types of viral tests: rapid tests and lab­o­ra­to­ry tests. Viral tests use sam­ples that come from your nose or mouth. Rapid tests can be per­formed in min­utes and can include anti­gen and some NAATs. Lab­o­ra­to­ry tests can take days to com­plete and include RT-PCR and oth­er types of NAATs.

Some test results may need con­fir­ma­to­ry testing.

Self-tests are rapid tests that can be tak­en at home or any­where, are easy to use, and pro­duce rapid results. COVID-19 self-tests are one of many risk-reduc­tion mea­sures, along with vac­ci­na­tion, mask­ing, and phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing, that pro­tect you and oth­ers by reduc­ing the chances of spread­ing COVID-19.

Hav­ing a sup­ply of rapid self-tests at home will enable you to test your­self before you head out the door to a din­ner par­ty or movie the­ater or oth­er gathering.

Most rapid self-tests are of the “anti­gen” vari­ety, and sev­er­al com­pa­nies make them, though they are get­ting hard­er to find because the Unit­ed States has­n’t done a good job of ensur­ing tests are uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble to all.

But if you know where to go online, you can put in an order and have tests at your home in a few days. No need to dri­ve from store to store.

Note that anti­gen tests are not your only option for test­ing at home.

There are a cou­ple of rapid self-test­ing sys­tems now on the mar­ket of the mol­e­c­u­lar type, which are more accu­rate than the anti­gen type.

One is made by Cue Health and anoth­er is made by a start­up called Detect.

Cue’s sys­tem isn’t cheap. It’s $474 for a read­er and three tests (the read­er and tests are each over $200 each). Detec­t’s tests, on the oth­er hand, go for $50 each and require a read­er (called a hub) that costs just $39. As of press time, Cue had inven­to­ry for sale, while Detect did not. (You can sign up on Detec­t’s web­site to be noti­fied when addi­tion­al units are made avail­able for pur­chase.)

If you can afford a Cue or Detect sys­tem, hav­ing one handy will give you a means of per­form­ing con­fir­ma­to­ry test­ing with­out hav­ing to go anywhere.

Mol­e­c­u­lar at home tests aren’t cheap, so it’s log­i­cal to save them for use in fol­low­ing up on a pos­i­tive anti­gen test or test­ing again for COVID-19 if you have symp­toms but got a neg­a­tive result from an anti­gen test.

Now, here’s where you can stock up on masks and anti­gen tests.

These are all non-Ama­zon and non-eBay rec­om­men­da­tions. Our advice is to buy straight from the man­u­fac­tur­er or autho­rized dis­trib­u­tor, as it’ll ensure you’re not wast­ing your mon­ey and will get prod­ucts that are gen­uine, mean­ing NIOSH or FDA approved. These firms all have their own store­fronts, many pow­ered by Shopi­fy, that make check­ing out straight­for­ward and rel­a­tive­ly pain­less. Many have pro­mo­tion­al dis­counts avail­able. Check Retail­MeNot and Hon­ey before com­plet­ing your pur­chase to see if there’s a dis­count avail­able to you.


Brief com­pa­ny overview:

Deme­TECH is known for its inno­v­a­tive wound clo­sure med­ical devices such as sur­gi­cal sutures and her­nia mesh, Deme­TECH ramped up pro­duc­tion of Amer­i­can-made sur­gi­cal masks and expand­ed to pro­duce N95 res­pi­ra­tors when the COVID-19 cri­sis first struck.

Called DemeMASK, the col­lec­tion uti­lizes only the high­est grade Amer­i­can-made raw materials.

In fact, all aspects of the oper­a­tion are USA-based, from the fab­ric to the pack­ag­ing and extend­ing to the machin­ery used in the fac­to­ry. This domes­tic pro­duc­tion reduces depen­den­cy on obtain­ing PPE from for­eign coun­tries and com­pa­nies, which was a big issue when the virus first spread in the Unit­ed States and PPE were near­ly impos­si­ble for med­ical staff and con­sumers to find.

Their online store is here.

They sell both masks and COVID-19 anti­gen tests.

Last Feb­ru­ary, The New York Times pro­filed Deme­Tech for an arti­cle that dis­cussed the para­dox of small, U.S. based firms strug­gling to find buy­ers despite a huge demand for qual­i­ty masks. Buy­ing direct­ly from a man­u­fac­tur­er like Deme­Tech is a win-win: you’ll get good masks and help them stay in business.


Brief com­pa­ny overview:

We woke up one day and real­ized that enough was enough. We had to do some­thing about the price goug­ing and qual­i­ty of the prod­ucts, espe­cial­ly for our first respon­ders, essen­tial work­ers and you, our cus­tomer. Our fam­i­ly pulled in all our resources, con­nec­tions and decades worth of expe­ri­ence in over­seas man­u­fac­tur­ing to bring more PPE to the mar­ket at the com­pet­i­tive prices with low min­i­mum order quan­ti­ties for all cus­tomers around the world.

Our promise to our cus­tomers is that we will always be hon­est and trans­par­ent with what we’re sell­ing, where it’s made, what cer­ti­fi­ca­tions we have and if it’s the right prod­uct for them.

We are not moti­vat­ed by greed, we are moti­vat­ed by sav­ing lives.

We care about you.

Their online store is here.

They sell both masks and COVID-19 anti­gen tests along with oth­er PPE.

Bona Fide Masks

Brief com­pa­ny overview:

In 1938, our great-grand­fa­ther and grand­fa­ther start­ed Ball Chain Mfg. Co., Inc. in the garage behind their house in the Bronx, New York. We have a his­to­ry of help­ing our in times of need.

In World War II, our new­ly-formed com­pa­ny man­u­fac­tured parts for the Thun­der­bolt fight­er plane.

In 2020, at the request of a local com­mu­ni­ty leader, we formed Bona Fide Masks® to help address the short­age of PPE.

As 4th gen­er­a­tion fam­i­ly owned and oper­at­ed busi­ness, our mis­sion is to bring authen­tic masks to every­one! We are a trust­ed U.S. mil­i­tary man­u­fac­tur­er that cares so much about our cus­tomers. We are proud that Bona Fide Masks™ is now the EXCLUSIVE dis­trib­u­tor of  Powe­com ® prod­ucts in the U.S. and Canada.

Their online store is here.

They sell masks and oth­er PPE, but not COVID-19 tests.


Brief com­pa­ny overview:

Our goal is to make it as easy as pos­si­ble for indi­vid­u­als of all ages to take a more active role in man­ag­ing their health. We do this by design­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing inno­v­a­tive, con­sumer-friend­ly, mobile per­son­al health­care prod­ucts that con­nect to the cloud.

iHealth prod­ucts are easy to use, mak­ing it sim­ple for con­sumers to accu­rate­ly mea­sure, track, and share a full range of health vitals.

By auto­mat­i­cal­ly con­nect­ing the data through the cloud, con­sumers are able to see a more com­pre­hen­sive view of their vitals and eas­i­ly share infor­ma­tion with health­care pro­fes­sion­als or loved ones.

Their online store is here. They only sell tests, as they’re a manufacturer.

Stay safe and be well this New Year!

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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