Sustainable masks & face coverings for 2022 & beyond

My personal evaluation of three consumer grade elastomeric respirators is available further down in this post: Breathe99 B2, FLO Mask, and ZShield Reveal.3 brands of reusable face mask: B2, Reveal, FLO

As of July 2022, many people claim to be “over COVID;” I’m not one of them. I continue to mask regularly. I cover my face to protect a high risk member of my household, and because I have enough uncomfortable health issues of my own already. The specter of long COVID looms large enough to make indoor masking my preference.

Long COVID is most common in middle aged people, affecting as many as one in four recovered patients according to a Nature news feature. The CDC gives me better odds than 25% in their Data for Long COVID section, but, the fact is, no one yet knows the true prevalence of the condition.

Long term, I see no reason to ever stop masking in crowded conditions such as boarding a flight or on mass transit, though my specific level of vigilance will probably vary as this pandemic wanes and flu season comes and goes.Disposable surgical mask

The particular genesis of today’s post was a New York Times article by Andrew Jacobs published July 3, 2022. It’s worth reading, but the gist is that American hospitals should have learned the supply chain lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic and switched to elastomeric respirators for essential healthcare workers by now.

Elastomeric respirators are reusable face coverings using replaceable filter elements that work as well as disposable N95s to block the flow of germs. Many are domestically produced, to boot, in marked contrast to the largely imported supply of disposable masks.

Widespread adoption of elastomeric respirators would solve the problem of being dependent upon a hostile foreign nation for vital supplies while offering equal or better protection to each wearer with a better fit and simultaneously creating less waste.

Win-win-win.Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines elastomer as a noun, "any of various elastic substances resembing rubber"

The “elastomeric” part of the elastomeric respirator just means the body of the filtering face mask in question is stretchy or otherwise like rubber.

If the NYT article is to be believed, elastomeric respirators are often judged more comfortable by the wearer than N95s. Disposable filters are still required, but they might require only annual replacement for a few dollars, while the main body of the device—composed of washable silicone—should last a decade at a one time cost of $15-40 each.

For about two thirds of the money spent by the Trump administration attempting to sterilize and re-use N95s, we could have outfitted each of the nation’s 18 million health care workers with an elastomeric respirator according to Nicolas Smit as quoted in Jacobs’ article.Pile of money

Or, to harp on the affordability point from a different angle, a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons showed: “Outfitting… workers [with elastomeric respirators] was one-tenth as expensive than supplying them with disposable N95s. A separate study found that after one year, the filters were still 99 percent effective.”

And, given the chance to switch back to N95s after the study period in question, none of the employees opted to do so. I take that to mean those healthcare workers found the alternative masks easier to wear or use.

Toward the end of the New York Times piece was a mention of just one particular small business that’s giving up in the face of the healthcare system’s irrational insistence on sticking with disposable, imported masks. Breathe99—whose elastomeric respirator made the cover of Time magazine in 2020 as an innovation prize-winner—is winding down operations at the company’s Minnesota plant.

I followed the link, and found that I could purchase Breathe99’s B2 mask at retail as of early July 2022. Since I still see daily death reports in my newspaper, I remain in the market for comfortable, effective face coverings. I decided to resume exploration of better Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.), hoping I can reduce waste while staying safe.

I don’t buy disposable water bottles or accept single use plastic cutlery when I get takeout food, so why should I continue to rely upon paper face masks when more comfortable, equally effective alternatives exist?

One caveat: there are officially approved elastomeric respirators for clinical use, but consumer grade options are unlikely to be officially NIOSH approved. Whether this is due to pandemic backlogs or if it is just a regulatory grey area, I’m not informed enough to say. Just be aware that we still have no official designation for effective, FDA-approved consumer grade face coverings.

Now that mask mandates have ended and masking is a voluntary, personal choice in most settings, the up side to all of that reckless abandon is that no one is likely to complain about any specific face covering I acquire or wear. There should be no push back to the lack of an official protection rating for any mask I select.

On the down side, I’m left having to hope these products actually work as designed, and as represented by their manufacturers. I’m “doing my own research” here because I have no choice if I want a comfortable, well-fitting, effective face covering. I do go all the way to published papers from scientific journals and material spec sheets whenever possible.

For example, here’s a USA Today fact checking story about why filter media with a physical pore size of around 0.3 micron can be quite efficient at stopping SARS-CoV-2 viral particles which are themselves closer to 0.1 micron.

One clear takeaway of the past couple of years is that any mask offers better protection from airborne viruses than a bare face does. I do feel confident that I won’t end up worse off than I would be wearing a cloth mask or an ill-fitting surgical one when I don a tight-sealing face covering utilizing an effective filter medium at the point(s) where all my breath enters or exits the device.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face covering in 2020

This improvised face covering was my first attempt at masking when the idea was introduced to the general public in 2020. This loose, single layer of fabric is obviously not protective in the way a fitted non-woven medical mask would be, but I crafted it for passing strangers on walks around my neighborhood, so, in hindsight, I wasn’t at high risk when I wore it.

I will compare and contrast three intriguing designs that I’ve purchased at retail and tested for myself for the reader’s convenience. Because these elastomeric products are relatively expensive—from $60 to 90 per starter kit—I hope my comparison will help others pick a useful style.

Because of the note of doom sounded by the NYT article that sent me down this path, I advise anyone picking up one of these expensive face coverings to stock up on specialized, custom fit filters while they are still available. We as a society seem to have learned very little from the deprivations and death wrought by COVID-19. Even top quality, well designed products may be dropped from the market if their makers go out of business.

I ordered three different face coverings direct via their manufacturer’s web sites, paying the stated retail price. Here’s the list including the July 2022 list price:

  1. B2 mask by Breathe99 as referenced in the NYT article ($59.99)
  2. FLO Mask for adults or children though I’m only testing the adult version ($89.99)
  3. ZShield Reveal rigid mask which I pre-ordered and got in 2021 ($89.99)

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Back to school or learning pod, every parent’s choice is reasonable

I don’t think my behavior should be characterized as doom-scrolling, but I do subscribe toand read dailytwo of the major American newspapers as well as a handful of magazines. I prefer my news* to be well-researched, fact-checked, and professionally edited, thank you!

Recently, everywhere I look, I’m confronted by angry, polarized debate creating artificial binary positions on the particulars of education in the COVID-19 era.

In person learning is too dangerous! Remote learning is useless! Both positions are flawed…

“In person learning is too dangerous!”

“Remote learning is useless!

Both positions are flawed because real life is nuanced. What works for one child—or one family, or one community—can’t be arbitrarily exported to someone else’s situation because there are meaningful differences between cases.

school supplies - 1Some teachers aren’t at particularly high risk for complications from the novel coronavirus, and want to get back into classrooms quickly. By all means, let’s put those educators to work in communities where infection rates make that a sensible solution. Other teachers have pre-existing conditions or would prefer to teach remotely: there’s an audience for that modality, too.

I have yet to see any analysis comparing the number of teachers who’d like to get back inside schools with the number of families who desire the same for their kids. What if all this finger pointing is for nothing and those numbers align naturally in most communities? Shouldn’t someone put a modicum of effort into asking such a straightforward question that could solve so many problems?

Remote education worked well for some students. Learning outside of a large, “industrial school” setting was the dominant mode of education for most people prior to the past century. It’s ridiculous to pretend that there is only one path from ignorance to wisdom; all of human history argues otherwise.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10I’ve read articles bemoaning the selfishness of (rich) parents forming COVID-19 learning pods instead of sending their kids back to public schools. At the same time, many (mostly urban) schools don’t have enough physical space to safely host all of their pupils in a socially distanced manner.

It strikes me as obvious that the removal of some kids—admittedly, those whose families can afford to pay private tutors or take time away from work to teach their own themselves—from over-crowded conditions will only improve the odds against infection-via-density for those who remain.

Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

It flat out sucks that we have yet to find a way to offer any semblance of an equal opportunity for an excellent education to all students regardless of color, creed, or zip code, but reducing each pupil’s risk of contracting COVID-19 in his or her classroom is a more straightforward problem to solve.

Since this is literally a matter of life or death, I think we should start with the low hanging fruit of smaller class sizes by whatever means possible. Some skilled educators may be lured by wealthy families’ ability to pay for private tuition, but few go into teaching for the money, so I suspect most passionate teachers will remain in the system where they chose to work.

Some families have no option but to send their kids back to classrooms. They depend upon this one and only form of state-sponsored child care in America in order to work, earning a paycheck, but also contributing their labor to benefit society. Their kids deserve to be the first children back at school in person. I willingly cede the seats my kids could rightfully occupy to children who need them more.

The children of essential workers and kids who live with food insecurity should have first dibs on in person instruction this year. This isn’t about getting the most back for every penny I spent in taxes, it’s about doing the right thing at a tumultuous time.

lunch box on kitchen counter

Lunchbox, ready for school.

It is pathetic that many of our schools are in poor repair and lack modern HVAC systems or windows that open. It is ridiculous how many young bodies we squeeze into rooms designed for far fewer. It is outrageous that millions of our children depend upon meals served at school for essential nutrition.

None of that is right, but all of it is true. I will continue to advocate for better schooling for every kid at every opportunity I see, but I’m not going to ignore reality when lives are at risk. Neither choice is pure merit, but neither choice deserves scorn.

The choice that works for your family this year is good enough. Do what works. Kids can learn in many ways and from many sources, especially when they see their parents carefully making thoughtful choices on their behalf.

Children play amongst colorful leaves on a sunny autumn dayKids are resilient. Thank God! Most of the kids will be all right. That’s the best we can do in the face of a viral adversary that has killed 171,787 Americans as of August 29, 2020.

For the moment, the best I can offer my community is to keep my kids away from public spaces to alleviate the pressure of a pandemic on the strained resources of our health and education systems.

I’m doing my best, like so many other parents. Frankly, we should all give ourselves a break, because our best really is good enough for now. Instead of blaming each other for making different choices, let’s all focus on meeting the needs of our own kids, each in our own ordinary, reasonable way.

I voted Election sticker - 1Highly paid elected officials in D.C. and other capitals deserve the pressure and expectation of doing more, because they are the ones who dropped this particular ball. Give them the blame they’ve earned. The U.S.A. is failing in its attempt to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t for lack of effort on the part of average American parents.

* It’s true that I added the New York Times to my paid subscriptions only after COVID-19 started sweeping the world, but I’d been on the verge of the upgrade purchase for almost a year. I think this is where I give a shout out to the Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Wired magazine, and The Economist for edu-taining me through a pandemic, right? 

It was my growing reliance on NYT Cooking recipes during the early phase of sheltering-in-place (with hit-and-miss grocery deliveries) that finally prompted me to input my credit card number.

According to this NY Times article from September 4, 2020, 40% of parents have chosen remote learning instead of taking advantage of the hybrid or in person options offered in that city.

As a mother who has home schooled one of her children for over seven years, my experience was that customizing my own plan for my own child was far easier than implementing the adapted curriculum dictated by my other kid’s school that was unprepared for the sudden need for remote learning last spring. American parents have the right to educate their own children as they see fit, so declaring as a home educating parent is an alternative for those whose kids responded poorly to their schools’ offerings.

In 2018, 29.7 million children received free or reduced-cost lunch daily per the USDA