The US government plans to make high-quality face masks available for children, and “that process is underway,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, senior adviser to the White House Covid-19 Response Team, told CNN on Wednesday.
The forthcoming plan appears to be an extension of the White House’s ongoing effort to distribute 400 million free N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile for the public to access at pharmacies and community health centers nationwide.
“Already, 230 million masks have been delivered to pharmacies and community health centers as part of the administration’s efforts to deliver high-quality masks around the country, and that process will continue,” Inglesby said during a virtual White House briefing Wednesday.
“We are now in the process of planning for the distribution of masks for children, and we’ll have more to say about that in the days ahead,” he added. “But there is a commitment to do that.”
In January, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on masks and respirators to recommend that everyone over the age of 2 “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently,” noting that “some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others.”
The agency describes well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health — such as N95 masks — as offering “the highest level of protection.” Although NIOSH-approved N95 respirators may be available in smaller sizes, the CDC notes that they are typically designed to be used by adults in the workplace and have not been tested for broad use in children. Therefore, high-quality child-sized masks can be difficult to find.
Masks may be especially important for children, as many kids ages 5 to 11 remain unvaccinated and there is no Covid-19 vaccine authorized for those under the age of 5.
The difference between N95, KN95 and KF94
There are three types of respirators, or high-quality masks, often discussed as offering the highest level of protection: N95, KN95 and KF94.
The difference between N95 and KN95 masks is where each is certified. The US tests, certifies and regulates the N95s that public health experts have been recommending; manufacturers in China test KN95s, but the country’s government doesn’t have a regulatory body that’s validating them.
Roughly 60% of KN95 respirators that NIOSH evaluated during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 didn’t meet the requirements they were intended to meet, according to the CDC.
N95 and KN95 masks are both designed to be at least 95% efficient at filtering particles, but N95s feature headbands due to the tighter face seal requirements.
KF94 masks are Korean-standard masks tested and regulated by the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and they are designed to be at least 94% efficient at filtering particles.
“The problem in the US is that we do not have a respirator standard for kids. We only have the NIOSH series of masks, which the lowest is the N95, and those are not designed for kids,” Aaron Collins told CNN on Wednesday. Collins, a Minneapolis-based mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science, has been testing and evaluating masks. He said he has been calling for the US government to make high-quality masks available for adults and children since the early days of the pandemic.
“In terms of supply, they’ve been very tight. There are options in the KN95, which is the Chinese mask test standard, and the KF94 space, that’s South Korea’s general public mask standard,” Collins said. He added that he would be interested to see what types of high-quality masks the US government plans to make available for children.
Overall, “I think it’s great,” he said of the government plan. “The question for me is, what kind of masks will they distribute?”
Parents struggle to find high-quality masks for kids
Dr. Vivek Cherian knows firsthand the need to have high-quality masks for young children — and the difficulty finding them.
“Two of my children are between the age of 2 and 4 — so right in there — and I absolutely do think there is a need because, for example, whenever my wife and I find a good mask, it’s either constantly sold out or constantly going in and out of stock,” said Cherian, a Chicago-based internal medicine physician and father of three. His third child, 7 months old, is too young to wear a mask.
“As a parent, I have run into this issue several times trying to get good high-quality KN95 masks for kids that are available,” Cherian told CNN on Wednesday, adding that he tends to search for masks online.
“When it comes to children particularly, you want to find a mask that’s really comfortable and that’s a good fit. So it’s completely covering their nose and their mouth and there are no gaps — because when the gaps occur, that’s when the air leaking occurs too,” Cherian said. “And that’s one of the big reasons also, other than the filtration issue, that surgical masks are not nearly as effective, because there tend to be several gaps that occur when wearing the regular surgical masks.”
Cherian is looking forward to the US government’s possible plans to roll out high-quality masks for children, he said.
“We should be doing our due diligence of giving them the best possible masks,” he said. “And if they’re not eligible for vaccinations at this point, to make sure we’re surrounding those kids with adults and teachers who are fully vaccinated.”