Editorial: NYU, buy better masks in bulk

In light of the university’s reopening, NYU needs to upgrade the masks that it hands out from surgical to KN95, KF94 and N95s.

NYU+encourages+faculty%2C+staff+and+students+to+wear+KF94%2C+N95+and+KN95+masks+to+combat+omicron%E2%80%99s+high+transmissibility.+But+the+university+has+yet+to+provide+its+community+with+the+masks+it+recommends.+%28Staff+Photo+by+Manasa+Gudavalli%29

Manasa Gudavalli

NYU encourages faculty, staff and students to wear KF94, N95 and KN95 masks to combat omicron’s high transmissibility. But the university has yet to provide its community with the masks it recommends. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

The world is finally returning to what we’ve coined “the new normal,” reflective of pre-omicron numbers and guidelines — still masked, but more free. In light of the rapidly declining COVID-19 positivity rates within our university and the city at large, NYU announced that starting on Friday, Feb.4, indoor dining will resume, and on Monday, Feb. 7, restrictions on campus activities, gyms and other campus facilities will be lifted. NYU is making the right decision.

“The relaxing of the once-strict guidelines will hopefully instill a greater sense of unity on campus, as we will no longer be restricted to our residence and lecture halls,” a WSN opinion writer wrote last week. Indeed, easing these COVID-19 restrictions will enable students to have a more normal semester with richer academic and social lives. To NYU’s credit, the university is now requiring students and faculty to wear higher-quality masks — either surgical, KF94, KN95 or N95 because of omicron’s heightened transmissibility. These masks are not all created equal, though.

NYU has been distributing surgical masks at Campus Safety stations, residence halls and through Public Health Ambassadors. However, these masks are significantly less effective than other masks. It’s possible that, if we aren’t careful, omicron could resurge. Students should be expected to step up and do their part to follow public health recommendations, such as masking in university facilities and social distancing where practicable, but NYU needs to step up too. The university should bulk-order better masks — KF94s, KN95s and N95s — and distribute them to students and faculty members wherever possible. 

These alternative masks are simply more effective. N95s have a significantly tighter fit than surgical masks and — as their name vaguely suggests — they block 95% of harmful particulates in the wearer’s vicinity. KN95s and KF94s filter particulates at a similar rate. These masks can also be reused about two or three times. Surgical masks, on the other hand, offer minimal protection against harmful particulates, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explicitly stating that these single-use masks are generally intended to block “large-particle droplets,” like saliva and other respiratory secretions, not particulate matter. While the medical literature on the efficacy of surgical masks at filtering particulates is mixed, one study suggests that the particulate filtration rate for standard blue masks with loops is as low as 38.1%. 

Low-income students will especially benefit from NYU buying better masks in bulk. With the new CDC guidance recommending that people wear better masks, prices have soared; some packs of 10 or 20 masks are selling for upwards of $30. While this might not seem like a lot of money to NYU’s Canada Goose community, this price is prohibitively expensive for many. Although the Biden administration has bulk-ordered better masks to be distributed for free around America’s pharmacies, Barron’s has reported that it is nearly impossible to obtain one within the five boroughs. The price gouging of KN95 and N95 masks are putting NYU’s low-income students at more risk. NYU can and should change this. 

Immunocompromised students and faculty members, too, need the added protection of better masks. WSN has previously contended that NYU’s in-person reopening puts students who are disabled or immunocompromised at risk. By distributing better masks around campus, we will protect vulnerable students from obtaining what could be a fatal illness and all students from spreading it. The availability of better masks will also enable these students to more freely enjoy academic and social activities, armed with a strong deterrent against omicron. 

Other universities are beating NYU on providing masks. The University of Arizona — which has an endowment of $1.2 billion — is providing better masks to students upon request. NYU, with a financial endowment of $5.8 billion, has no excuse.

The California Institute of Technology is also providing better masks to students and university employees. The University of Southern California is also selling them to students and faculty at cost, for those who are interested in buying packs of better masks. The proactive distribution of better masks by these universities will help prevent another omicron outbreak. 

Because online marketplaces are filled with fake N95s, KN95s and KF94s, NYU should bulk-order better masks from well-reputed industrial suppliers like Grainger and McMaster-Carr. Now is the time to use NYU’s vast financial resources to the benefit of students and the public health of Manhattan at large, instead of recruiting academics with fancy apartments and spending exorbitantly on administrative salaries. 

NYU students and faculty are already doing as much as they can to stay safe during the pandemic, but we need the proper resources to do so even more effectively. The university should immediately buy better masks in bulk so we can do our part in beating back COVID-19.

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