What Is the Main Purpose of a Respirator, and Why Are They Rare?

COVID-19 exposed the treatment gaps in hospitals all over the world. As patients forced hospitals to be over-capacity, the respiratory illness showed how ill-equipped facilities were to manage severe symptoms. Ventilators became in-demand at such levels that some facilities were hooking equipment meant for one person to two individuals.

Respirators were also in short supply in most facilities. These mask-like devices get worn over the nose and mouth to prevent the inhalation of a harmful substance. Wearing one while in the presence of someone with a viral infection can prevent the spread of that disease.

That means it is harder to get infected with COVID-19 when wearing one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using N95 respirators to prevent viral transmissions. This equipment type fits tightly around the mouth and nose when compared to surgical masks or DIY cloth products. Another option is called a PAPR, which stands for “powered air-purifying respirator.” It covers the entire head, using a blower to filter the air.

What Caused the Respirator Shortage?

After 85 million N95 respirators got distributed in 2009 to tackle the challenges of the swine influenza, American companies started shifting the production of this product overseas. Most of the contracts went to Chinese facilities, creating a cost-savings at the expense of losing the infrastructure for domestic capabilities.

The cost of manufacturing equipment that can produce the respirators needed to treat COVID-19 patients is $250,000 or – with a six-month lead time.

As companies sought cheaper production practices, they developed complex international supply chains at the expense of domestic capabilities. This action shrunk the labor pool and limited costs, but it also created unexpected fragility in the marketplace. 

Without access to the international supply chain, there is zero access to the respirators.

Then the chain-of-events that led to the global pandemic of COVID-19 contributed to the shortage of respirators. China is the home of several manufacturing centers that make this product. Since workers couldn’t function in their facilities with the viral outbreak attacking that country first, the first respirators went to Chinese front-line workers. That meant fewer were available for the future clusters and outbreaks that occurred.

Even though respirators are a low-value item that is easy to manufacture, there aren’t enough companies making this product. Those that are haven’t reached full capacity since January 2020. Until those issues get corrected, this personal protective equipment will continue to be rare.