Why Did Tech Companies Stockpile Millions of Medical Masks?

Three children wearing white N95 masks hold up an American flag while a man stands behind them smiling and holding up a phone to take a picture or video.
People watch President Donald Trump’s motorcade during his visit to view damage from wildfires in Paradise, California, on Nov. 17, 2018.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

As hospitals in the U.S. face a severe shortage of medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic, tech giants are donating N95 respirators and surgical masks en masse. On Saturday, Elon Musk wrote in an email to CleanTechnica that Tesla/SpaceX will be distributing its supply of 250,000 N95 masks. Just one day later, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will give away its emergency reserve of 720,000 masks. On Tuesday, Mike Pence confirmed that Apple is donating 9 million masks to health care facilities around the country.

Each time another tech company joins the donation ranks, the same question keeps popping up: Where do all of these masks come from, since precisely none of these companies is in the mask production business?

The answer is simple: They’re based in California, where deadly wildfires occur each year, so these companies had stocked up to prepare for future fires. The destructive 2018 wildfire season was a particular catalyst for mask stockpiling.

Facebook, for example, was just following standard guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Chloe Meyere, a communications manager for Facebook. FEMA recommends a certain number of masks (as well as emergency food and water) per employee, Meyere explained, and California’s guidelines in particular changed after the 2018 wildfires, which severely impacted air quality. (Even California officials urged residents to stay indoors and wear N95 masks when they had to step outside.) Many companies in the San Francisco Bay Area stocked up to meet the new minimum. Now, because Facebook employees are under mandatory work-from-home orders, the company has no immediate use for its supply, which includes both N95 and surgical masks.

While the mass mask donations are certainly helpful, they’re still just a drop in the bucket, as Vox recently reported. Hospitals are burning through masks at unprecedented rates. NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, for instance, goes through about 40,000 non-N95 masks per day and expects to soon use 70,000 per day, according to an internal memo by the hospital’s chief surgeon. Before the pandemic, the hospital used just 4,000 masks on a normal day. Pence said on Saturday that the Department of Health and Human Services has ordered hundreds of millions of masks to address shortages, though the details of the order are currently unknown.

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