Minnesota launches 2 million mask rollout; company plans N95-type mask for kids

In these pandemic times, it’s a challenging question:

How do we keep our children safe?

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“It is not something that we have graduate classes for, but it is what we need to meet the moment,” declares Matt Hillmann, the superintendent of Northfield Public Schools.

Hillmann says he’s glad to learn his district of 3800 students is receiving KN95 masks under a state rollout announced by Gov. Tim Walz Thursday.

“Any help that we can get from the state to provide quality PPE, so that we’re able to maintain a safe learning environment and a working environment that’s practical,” he adds. “That allows us to prioritize that uninterrupted learning — that’s welcome.”

The governor’s office says about 650,000 of the masks will go to public health agencies, and about 550,000 are slated for schools — for staff and students.

Hillmann says his district began passing out cloth masks a year-and-a-half ago, then moved to surgical masks, and just this month, pivoted to KN95 masks.

He says the extra masks from the state will help even more.

“None of us thought this would be the public service that we’re providing, but we’re going to do everything we can for our community in this way,” Hillmann notes.

The Minnesota mask initiative comes as the Centers for Disease Control continues to urge everyone to get vaccinated and get a booster shot — considered the best protection against the coronavirus.

Just this week, the Biden administration started its rollout of N95 masks, sending 400 million masks to pharmacies across the country.

A state COVID-19 response spokesperson says masks in the state rollout are a mix of N95 and KN95 models.  

He says almost all of them are made by U.S. manufacturers, including Minnesota-based 3M.

Right now, experts say, those N95s — considered the most efficient against viral transmission — are meant for adult use, under the supervision of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, for short.

“Right now the NIOSH N95 approval, the U.S. government approval, is really focused on adults,” explains Dr. Nikki Vars McCollough, a 3M scientist. “These are actually approved by the government. They have really efficient filters in them, and seals around your face.”

The CDC recommends when shopping for KN95 masks, look for the “KN95” logo on the front, plus the manufacturer’s name and a serial number underneath.

But what about N95s for kids?

“That was part of the challenge here,” says Andrew Moy, the CEO of Aegle Corporation, a Houston area mask-making company. “Domestically, we’ve never had a need or a market for children’s masks before the pandemic.”

Moy says Aegle is in the process of manufacturing a children’s mask with the same safety standards as an adult N95.

He adds while his company’s N95 has NIOSH certification, the five-layer children’s masks he’s making — although not certified by the government — will be a high-quality mask that parents can feel safe about.

“You know they’ll have the comfort of knowing, coming from an approved manufacturer that understands quality,” Moy says. “It’s made in the U.S., versus overseas, where some of these standards are people self-reporting versus actual testing.”

He says Aegle is developing a mold for a mask that will specifically fit kids’ faces.

To do so, Moy says they’ll have to recalibrate machines to mold those masks — something they haven’t tried before.

But, he says once the manufacturing process is started, the company could make several hundred thousand masks a week.

Moy says those masks will likely be available for sale by early March.

“What we’ll be doing is using the same materials and process and procedures of our NIOSH-approved masks,” he says. “We’ve taken a lot of time and care into development of our standards and our quality. We’ll be using those same standards.”

Back in Minnesota, Hillmann says his district has not yet received its mask allocation from the state.

The governor’s office says with the rollout beginning this week, further shipments are going out in the days ahead.

Meanwhile, Hillmann says the continually changing pandemic landscape has a sharp learning curve.

Still, he says, he has hope.  

“We just want people to keep believing that we’re doing everything we can, as this thing has evolved,” he says. “We all look forward to it being over because we would prefer to exit all our safety protocols and go back to some kind of normal existence, too.”