Variants, Covid and masks, oh my!
Up until now, as long as you had a decent covering over your face, you were doing pretty good. But, after letting this virus run wild for over a year, it is doing what viruses do and it’s mutating all over the place. Sometimes, variants will make it weaker or less transmissible and other times, it will make the virus much more contagious and/or more deadly and when that happens, we need to start wearing better protection. Yes, in the absence of a really great mask, you can double mask or you can make an elastic band hack to give a good surgical mask a better fit like this but it’s so much better to just have a really good mask in the first place.
Other countries, like South Korea and China have been supplying their citizens with high grade KN95 or Kf94 masks the whole time, while the rest of the world has been telling us to wrap a tshirt around around our head. Germany, France and Austria are considering mandating FFP (filtering facepiece) masks worn in stores and on public transit. That means it’s N95s, KN95s or KF94s for everyone. Since December, southern Germany has made these masks available at pharmacies, free of charge, to seniors and high risk citizens and they currently plant to distribute them to those who can’t afford them. Actually, I think that as of this date, Germany has officially mandated this new policy.
So, where does that leave us? We are told we should not wear N95s because medical workers need them but there is no effort to make sure we have access to high quality KN95s (Chinese Standard) or KF94s (South Korean Standard). Oh, the basic difference between an N95 and a KN95 or Kf94 are the ear loops – even if the filtration is equal, if a mask has ear loops it cannot be called an N95 as the two headstraps on an N95 ensure a tighter fit. Okay, but then we are warned that many KN95s from China are counterfeit and we can check on Health Canada’s website or on the CDC’s website if we want to spend hours pulling our hair out trying to navigate them to see if the mask we are trying to buy is the real deal or not. There are no links to sites where Canadians can order approved masks, just a convoluted list of approved masks with their manufacturers so you have to try to go out and find them yourself.
Basically, Canadians are left to their own devices to try to find high quality masks like it’s some kind of game of Covid Survivor.
*I am updating to let you know that this is no longer true! Canada Strong Masks are Canadian made, high quality CN95 masks. Five layer, Kf94 style boat construction, these masks share their test results on the web site so you can see that they exceed the NIOSH and Health Canada N95 requirements in every way and the only reason these style of respirators cannot be NIOSH approved are the ear loops. To be an N95, a respirator must use two head straps but that can be replicated with the use of ear savers or some other kind of clip that provides an even tighter seal and saves your ears.
At $12.95 for 5 masks, they are a bit cheaper than GoodManner but if you splurge on a case of 100 (go in with friends) the cost comes down to a very reasonable $1.64 per mask.
In the meantime, I have been following my mask North Star and Youtube Mask Stud, Aaron Collins
He is a mechanical engineer who wrote his Master’s thesis on the science of aerosols, spent years building instruments to count and describe these tiny particles and is on a one man mission to educate the public as he shares the wonder of the Korean Kf9f4. KF94s are guaranteed to filter, at minimum, 94% of particles but it seems like almost all of the Korean masks are closer to 97% to over 99%. He has also tested them by wearing them for up to 40 hrs and they lose almost none of their filtration so if you are wearing them in a clean environment, like an office, he recommends that you rotate three of them so that each mask gets a few days of non wear to be safe and ensure there is no chance of live virus contamination. Just make sure to store them in the open sleeve they came in or a paper bag so they can breath without any condensation. He talks about the effectiveness of various masks, how to get a good fit, how to care for them, where to buy them and recommends his favourites for different sizes of faces.
“That’s what I do. I look for ways to spread the gospel of KF94s, like I’m a Johnny Appleseed of protective face masks,” he said, referring to a type of mask made in South Korea.
He set up an aerosol lab in his bathroom and he tests an array of KF94s as well as some KN95s, shares the results and provides helpful links so that you can buy them. Sadly, his favourite online store only ships to the US but I have ordered his gold standard mask, The BOTN, from Amazon US. Check out his YouTube videos and it might be worth emailing one of the online shops to see if they will ship to Canada if you make a large enough order – go in with some friends. If you don’t want to watch the videos, he also includes the time signatures for the highlights so you can skip straight to the good parts and lists with clickable links to the masks he tests and recommends. Be wary of Amazon though and make sure that if you do go that route that the mask is coming from a verified distributor or straight from the manufacturer. If you choose to order the BOTN from Amazon US, this appears to be a verified distributor
*Updating again because I just got my shipment of printed Kf94 style respirators (can’t be called a Kf94 as this is a South Korean designation and these are made in Hong Kong) from Hong Kong’s Mask Lab. These are not only gorgeous, but they are level three, FFP2 masks that Aaron has tested as well and they are now on his list of top picks. He has found them to fit right in at the about 98% filtration level, just like most of the other Kf94s. They are light and really breathable, they fit my smaller face and they are gorgeous, to boot. I also got their ear loop adjustors to tighten fit and they work like a charm. MaskLab Hong Kong
I bought 70 masks and the tighteners and even with shipping from Hong Kong, it still came out to under $2 CND per mask. I would recommend going in with friends to share the cost of shipping. Like the other Kf94’s, these are safe for at least 40 hours of wear in a clean environment.
One of the best options for Canadians is Goodmanner Masks
These are Health Canada approved Kf94 masks being imported from South Korea and sold by a Toronto distributor so you can opt for free shipping via Canada Post. These are also an excellent choice but they do fit a bit on the smaller side. It fits me really well and it fits my adult son but my big headed husband finds it a bit small and, for him, I think the BOTN is going to a better choice. Order a pack of five for $18.97 first and make sure they fit and then you can get more. It’s a great mask, it’s the easiest to come by since it’s distributed out of a Toronto location, the price per mask comes down if you order a larger bundle (and for basic use, with the 40 hr for wearing at work rule, that will last you more than a month) and you have the option of free shipping. Their customer service is excellent and I cannot recommend them highly enough. They are very responsive if you contact them through their facebook page.
One more option for Canadians are masks from Soomlab in South Korea
This is a bit more expensive because the masks are sent straight from Korea via DHL so you will have to pay duty and taxes BUT they also arrive in a few days so I think it’s still worth it. They have come out with NIOSH approved N95 but you can only buy that in bulk with a minimum order of 100 at $339 CDN but their Air Queen Breeze has has been tested by Collins and it has well over 94% filtration and they also have a certified Kf94 for sale as well. They have children’s masks as well.
I used to wear the basic Air Queen and, at the time, it was the best mask I could find, hovering around the 90% rate but now that I have access to better masks, I keep that one for outdoor walks.
Like it or not, masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future and we need to do better, especially since it looks like the average Canadian will be lucky to get a vaccine by the end of 2021 at the rate we are going. To be honest, I will likely wear a mask during flu season and when I am travelling for the rest of my life because they work. Flu is almost non existent this year because of all of the covid mitigations and so if there is a sliver lining to any of this, we have gained some tools to keep ourselves healthier going forward.
If you have any recommendations you want to share, please comment and I will update the post as I come across any other good resources.