Masks donated by Facebook for health workers were stockpiled after wildfire regulations

EAST MEADOW, NEW YORK – MARCH 24: Nassau County police lead a donation drive to collect medical equipment such as N95 surgical masks, nitrile gloves, tyvex suits, antibacterial and disinfecting wipes to battle the coronavirus pandemic at Eisenhower Park on March 24, 2020 in East Meadow, New York. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Al Bello

When tech companies including Apple and Facebook announced this week that they’d be donating large numbers of protective masks to health workers around the world, some people may have wondered why they had them in the first place.

In some cases, companies had them in storage because of a California law that was put into place after a recent spate of wildfires.

In 2019, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board adopted a regulation forcing employers to provide respiratory equipment, including N95 masks, for workers when the Air Quality Index, or AQI, reaches unhealthy levels. 

“Surgical masks or items worn over the nose and mouth such as scarves, T-shirts, and bandannas will not provide protection against wildfire smoke,” the rule said. “An N95 filtering facepiece respirator, shown in the image below, is the minimum level of protection for wildfire smoke.”

N95 mask

Standards presentation to California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board

Masks are in short supply around the world as the coronavirus spreads and threatens to overwhelm health systems in the U.S. Hospitals are concerned that their frontline workers are being jeopardized because they don’t have the equipment needed to protect them as infected patients start filling emergency rooms.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that the federal government needs to nationalize the purchase of needed medical supplies and said the shortage of masks and other lifesaving equipment such as respirators is leading to price gouging, as states compete with each other. New York, the hardest-hit state so far, now estimates it will need 140,000 hospital beds in as little as 14 to 21 days. 

Based on the scale of the crisis, tech companies can only fill a small hole in the massive mask shortage. Facebook is providing 720,000 masks, though not all of them are N95. Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company is sourcing protective masks and other pieces of equipment, in part through it supply chain, for health workers in the U.S. and Europe. In a tweet on Wednesday, Cook said Apple has sourced “10M masks for the US and millions more for the hardest hit regions in Europe.”

When asked how many masks Apple had on hand based on the California requirement, a spokesperson would only reiterate what Cook said in his tweet. 

At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence thanked Apple and mentioned other companies as well, such as Ford.

But federal officials said earlier this month that the U.S. health-care system will need up to 3.5 billion N95 respirator masks over the next year.

Ford announced it will partner with 3M and GE Healthcare to begin producing face masks and ventilators to help fill potential shortages caused by the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told health workers last week that they can use homemade masks “in settings where facemasks are not available.”

Meanwhile, the California wildfires seem like a distant memory given the state of the current health crisis, but fire season is just months away and the intensity of the blazes has picked up dramatically in the last few years. During the Northern California fires of 2018, air quality in parts of the region was the worst in the world at the time, and the AQI has reached harmful levels in three straight years. 

Correction: Apple said its teams are sourcing masks for health-care workers and isn’t confirming whether it had masks in stock after California implemented the 2019 regulation.

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