Medical Examiner

Conde Nast Is Offering Its Employees N95 Masks. Bad Idea!

These masks are essential for health care workers, and potentially dangerous for everyone else.

Two bins of N95 masks with a sign above that says "N95 Masks Only."
Previously worn N95 masks, saved for possible recycling, in the intensive care unit of MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, on Wednesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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As the economy reels, media companies are reacting to the stunning drop in advertising with layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts. Magazine giant Conde Nast attempted to sweeten the bad news of its pay cuts with something positive: The company will be sending each of its employees an N95 mask—you know, the masks that help keep doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients from getting ill themselves.

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Why do journalists need N95s? Here’s the email from David Gifford, vice president, real estate and workplace services:

Screenshot of email from David Gifford that says Conde Nast will give employees N95 masks
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Offering employees these masks is dangerous. The main, huge, obvious way it is dangerous is because there is a national shortage of N95s. These are hospital-grade masks. Health care workers need these masks to stay healthy so they can continue to go to work helping people with COVID-19 not die. They also need them so they can not die themselves. And there is a national shortage of them.

Where did the masks come from? I reached out to Conde Nast, and a spokesperson clarified why they have them, while also noting that the company did donate a bunch of masks already:

As a tenant of 1 World Trade, we have had a supply of masks on hand for employees since moving into the building in 2014. We donated the vast majority of our stock, a medically-preferred type of mask, to local hospitals in New York City. We offered employees, some of whom are reporting on the front lines of the crisis, the option of having one of the remaining masks, which are not the preferred type of masks for medical facilities. Any unclaimed masks will be donated.

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The spokesperson confirmed that by “medically preferred,” he meant “disposable” N95s, which is indeed what hospitals typically use. But given that health care workers are improvising personal protective equipment, it seems like they could still use a slightly different version of an actual N95, rather than a surgical mask or something else.

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There is a more subtle way this is dangerous, which has to do with how people might use the masks. Giving out a single N95 invites reuse. In fact Gifford’s email encourages reuse, “for up to two years.” Health care workers are reusing masks because they absolutely need to have them. Methods to clean them include using hydrogen peroxide vapor. That’s a far cry from the soap and water that Gifford advises (the mask manufacturer suggests they are good for just 30 washes). Instead of cleaning them, the World Health Organization advises that after wearing a mask, you put it “immediately in a closed bin” and then clean your hands. (The next best alternative, as we turn to making our own masks, seems to be to toss it in a laundry bin.) Wearing a mask into the world, touching surfaces, and then touching the mask means that the mask stands to get contaminated on the outside, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains. If you’re sick, you will contaminate the inside. It is not good to have a contaminated thing just hanging out in your household.

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Another way it is a little bit dangerous is because N95s are not neutral pieces of equipment. As Robert Amler told me for my Slate guide to masks—an N95 “has its own side effects.” Namely, they can be hard to breathe through; Amler described it as similar to breathing into a paper bag. Folks with breathing issues should consult a doctor before using N95 masks, a San Francisco Chronicle piece explained a few years ago (they should not be used on children).

While there’s mixed evidence that members of the public wearing a surgical or cloth mask can help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s even less clear that donning an N95 could help on an individual level, and extremely clear that on a public health level, the best use of N95s is for health care workers. Conde’s masks seem to be the 2020 equivalent of getting a Town Car—just stupider.

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