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It’s time to get better masks for Princeton students, staff, and community members

<h5 class="text-align-left">The author wearing (from left to right) a Taiwanese government-issued surgical mask, Chinese KN95 mask, and South Korean KF94 mask. By March 2020, all three countries had instituted mass production, distribution, and quality assurance programs for these masks, ensuring their access to all citizens at affordable prices.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Mark Lee</h6>
The author wearing (from left to right) a Taiwanese government-issued surgical mask, Chinese KN95 mask, and South Korean KF94 mask. By March 2020, all three countries had instituted mass production, distribution, and quality assurance programs for these masks, ensuring their access to all citizens at affordable prices. 
Courtesy of Mark Lee

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion section, click here.

On Jan. 31, Taiwan announced a $7 million initiative to secure surgical masks for its entire population of 22 million. In a massive public-private partnership, the government devised a five-week plan to produce more than 10 million masks per day and meet the nation’s rising demand for protection, managing mass distribution through a newly developed online platform.

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It is a remarkable story, especially when you consider the announcement was made more than a year ago, on Jan. 31, 2020. (And in case you’re wondering, the initial production target was achieved ahead of schedule.)

By early spring 2020, Taiwan’s neighbors were also assembling supply chains and implementing innovative technologies to get quality masks in the hands of citizens. With 3M’s patented N95 mask — the gold standard of face masks — facing worldwide shortages, some East Asian countries began mass-producing their own alternative versions that 3M itself acknowledges are “similar” in filter quality. 

Still reeling from tragedy in Wuhan, China boosted its mask production capacity by 450 percent in one month. After overcoming early quality concerns, China now widely exports its own KN95 masks for medical use around the world. Meanwhile, South Korea launched a national initiative to distribute its KF94 masks at an accessible price of $1.20 per mask. Despite some initial hiccups, officials in these countries took the measures necessary to protect their citizens, including communicating the reasons why everyone should wear and have access to high-quality masks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government lagged far behind. On Feb. 29, the U.S. Surgeon General was still tweeting that face masks were "NOT effective,” and by the time the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) finally recommended face coverings on April 2, it was far too late. During New York’s first wave, medical-grade masks (i.e., anything with at least the protective quality of a surgical mask) were in disastrously short supply. Americans were forced to fabricate their own protection, with the U.S. Surgeon General publishing a video on how to make a mask out of an old t-shirt. For several weeks, even front-line health workers were furnishing their own homemade coverings.

In the months since, multiple North American and European researchers have published new studies “proving” what health leaders in East Asia already knew when they began taking action over one year ago: quality masks matter, and it's effective public policy to ensure affordable access and widespread adherence during a pandemic. Despite this scientific truth, it was only this week that the U.S. government finally encouraged widespread adoption of medical-grade masks, based on a new CDC study demonstrating that their use could help limit the spread of the virus. Yet this report did not come with an accompanying plan to guarantee affordable access for all.

In lieu of a nationwide or statewide mask distribution scheme, Princeton would do well to proactively launch its own in our community. This semester, the University has the opportunity to follow the example of Taiwan and embark on a similar project, though on a much smaller scale. By procuring and distributing medical-grade masks to all members of the Princeton community — both on campus and in town — the University can take a simple, evidence-backed measure that will keep our community safer as we continue to weather this devastating pandemic.

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As a Masters student at the School of Public and International Affairs and a Resident Graduate Student, I have had the immense privilege of remaining in student housing ever since our initial lockdown last March. I have watched firsthand as Princeton has leveraged its wealth to operate almost like an independent, well-resourced nation, imitating public policy decisions successfully applied in Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Indeed, the one notable area where Princeton has yet to take substantive action is quality mask access, even though medical-grade masks (other than N95s) are no longer in short supply.

Since August, the University has paid for weekly asymptomatic testing for all students, staff, and faculty. As Taiwan pioneered in early 2020, the University mandates quarantine for incoming travelers, and, crucially, provides free meals as well as grocery delivery for graduate students living in apartments. 

Although I never tested positive for COVID-19, the moment I reported mild symptoms in December, University Health Services stepped in to provide care, calling me daily for wellness checks while I isolated in my dorm room as a precaution. I feel extremely privileged to have access to this safety net, which includes resources far beyond the reach of the average American, never mind the millions of essential workers who are largely Black and Brown.

I also feel grateful to live in New Jersey, where more than 90 percent of residents are complying with mask wearing. I’m especially appreciative of University employees for abiding by these measures, including campus dining cooks working over hot stoves and other facilities staff engaged in physical labor. Unlike other parts of the country, we aren’t dealing with mask deniers or questionable mask adherence. It’s clear that members of our community listen to public health officials and follow guidelines and would readily adopt medical-grade masks if provided access and clear instruction.

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That’s why it alarms me to see dozens of students and staff still wearing flimsy cloth masks, bandanas, or gaiters as face coverings on campus, despite mounting evidence that these makeshift options do not offer adequate protection. On Feb. 10, the CDC announced new research that COVID-19 transmission can be reduced by up to 96.5 percent if individuals wear “well-fitting” masks with multiple layers that can be adjusted to the user’s face, design features that are incorporated into both Korean KF94 and Chinese KN95 masks. Higher-quality masks are more critical than ever given the emergence of more infectious variants, as recently flagged by medical experts.

Fortunately, the cost to provide better masks would be a drop in the bucket compared to the significant expenses the University has already dedicated to ensuring safety on campus, which have included establishing our own campus testing laboratory and administering twice-weekly coronavirus tests for students.

Although the CDC still limits the use of N95s to health personnel, KF94 and KN95 masks are available for purchase for under two dollars each, for a total cost of less than $10 per student per week. It would be a worthwhile and affordable investment for Princeton to acquire these masks in bulk, distribute them to everyone on campus, and educate all on why they are a better choice than less protective coverings.

Simultaneously, these high-quality masks must also be made available to members of the nearby community. Whether at the grocery store or downtown businesses, local residents come into contact with Princeton students on a daily basis. Even registered family members of students living in graduate housing face barriers accessing the University's medical resources; I have several classmates whose partners are excluded from asymptomatic testing and aren’t able to access referrals to specialists on the MyUHS website, despite being officially registered with the University as cohabitating spouses. 

As local organizers are highlighting at a demonstration this weekend, we have to acknowledge that, especially in a pandemic, we are one Princeton community, and our collective safety and sense of community care does not diminish the moment we cross Nassau Street into town.

During a year of chaos and uncertainty, Princeton has utilized its vast resources to take decisive action and successfully secure our campus. As we adapt to the next phase of this pandemic, it’s time for our health leaders to procure better masks and once again keep our community safe.

Mark Lee is Master of Public Affairs candidate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs from Irvine, Calif. He can be reached at markml@princeton.edu.

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