The uberinfectious omicron COVID-19 variant has triggered a race among U.S. parents to locate high-quality kid-sized masks, a run on supplies that rivals the pandemic’s frantic early days.
Omicron has swept the U.S. just as children returned to school after winter holidays, with many public-health experts urging them to toss cloth masks in favor of KN95s and KF94s, which better filter the aerosols that transmit the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks indoors for all students 2 years and older, with exemptions for those who can’t wear one because of a disability.
It’s hard enough to get kids to keep masks on, thanks to endless, natural impediments like run-of-the-mill runny noses and the sudden need to consume peanut-butter sandwiches. Now, parents have to find gear that fits snugly around chubby cheeks and also meets top safety standards.
Aaron Collins, a Minneapolis parent who has amassed some 50,000 combined Twitter and YouTube followers reviewing masks online, said omicron is exposing a weakness in U.S. quality control. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health doesn’t regulate kids’ masks, leaving many parents to turn elsewhere for advice. That includes Collins’s own reviews, a situation that he said was “ridiculous.”
“Not only do you not have a standard, but you have no way for parents to know if what they’re buying is real,” he said. Now, he said, that challenge is compounded by the shortages that have left the market “the tightest I’ve ever seen.”
The turmoil is another anxious pandemic chapter for parents, thanks to a market that’s seen demand ebb and flow with the virus. The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases is running at more than twice the pace at the previous peak last winter. Meanwhile, research shows vaccines are reducing severe outcomes, but not helping nearly as much to prevent infection itself — especially among kids who received their shot more than five months ago and haven’t had a booster.
Shannon Bott of Solon, Ohio, sent her two kids back to school for the first time since the pandemic started. She tried to fit KF94s and KN95s on her kids to be “as safe as we could.” Her 12-year-old son, Jackson, can wear an adult-size mask, but it’s much harder to find one for her 6-year-old, Violet.
Bott said it was tough to figure out which online sellers were legitimate, and how masks might match up with small faces. “Until they get to your house, you don’t know whether they’re going to fit your kids,” she said.
She lucked into a batch that fit Violet, who is in kindergarten. “Now I have to reorder that kind and hope that they have it in stock and hope that it gets to our house before we run out of the ones that I ordered,” she said.
Shopper searches for protective masks for children surged on Amazon, where prices also soared. Its marketplace model means quality standards can vary widely across the website’s offerings.
Lindsey Lurie, a Chicago-area mother of a 3- and 5-year-old, has spent many hours poking around online forums and using trial and error to find the right masks.
“Especially right now when it’s more important that it’s super protective and seals in place, I’ve definitely been challenged,” she said.
As parents have become more concerned, Amazon searches have become more precise. “Kids KN95 masks for children” was the 43rd-most-searched term on the site Wednesday, the most recent data available. In the entire month of December, more general searches for “kids mask” ranked much further down, at 2,634th on the site.
“Getting N95 masks for kids seems to be surging in waves — first in August 2021, and now in January,” said Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of Marketplace Pulse, which monitors consumer demand on Amazon and other online stores.
Demand has jumped dramatically in the past three weeks, according to Bill Taubner, president of Ball Chain Manufacturing, which distributes Powecom KN95 masks in the U.S. and Canada. He said sales of Powecom’s kid-sized masks tripled in December compared with recent lows.
Brent Dillie, managing partner at Premium-PPE, a surgical mask producer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said his company is running its kids’ manufacturing machines 24 hours a day through January and expects to be sold out through February.
But Dillie, who is also chairman of the American Mask Manufacturers Association, said his industry is unlikely to invest to increase production or shift away from adult masks unless companies receive guarantees from buyers or the government. His firm considers child-sized masks a “nonroutine” product. Factories would also lose about a week of production time refitting machines for children’s products.
Mask manufacturers, he said, could be “left hanging” if omicron burns out fast as it did in South Africa.
“We’re not in a position financially to make that kind of investment for children’s masks if we can’t get any guarantee from the federal government or the health-care systems or retailers,” he said.
Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of Miami-based medical device manufacturer Demetech, agreed. He said federal and state entities should make long-term commitments to buy and stock the masks, adding visibility for manufacturers and an equitable solution for parents.
“The government should be providing the masks like they do with the vaccines,” Arguello said.
Kelly Carothers, director of government affairs at Project N95 — a nonprofit clearinghouse for personal protective equipment — said the issue for many families isn’t finding masks, but paying for them. She said the cost of kids’ KN95 masks has fluctuated wildly on Amazon, fetching $3 apiece during the peak of the delta wave, slipping back to $1-$1.50 and then surging back to above $2.
“Parents just can’t pay $3 for a mask that their kids are going to wear for a day or two,” she said. “High-quality masks are cost-prohibitive for probably the majority of American families right now.”
Botts, the Ohio mother, said the whole process should be simpler.
“It should be that you could walk into Target, or Walmart, or any grocery store, or pharmacy and there should be multiple brands of masks and multiple sizes,” she said. “And they should be cheaper and easier for people to just go and pick them up.”
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