WESTLAKE, Ohio — With schools re-opening in the coming weeks and a statewide mask order now in place, many people across Northeast Ohio may be buying a mask for the first time or simply stocking up on their supplies. However, with so many different options out there, some buyers are left wondering what works best. That was the predicament a Westlake mother found herself in before she decided to forge her own way.
In the early days of the pandemic, Michelle Han, a commercial real estate attorney and mother of six children, was watching intently as the number of coronavirus cases began increasing in China and the surrounding region. She feared it was inevitable that the novel virus would reach the United States.
"I was geting really nervous and just very concerned about my parents, who are in their 70s, and about their friends," Han said. "I started to look into getting some masks. I went on Ebay and a whole bunch of other websites and I actually ended up ordering a bunch of them. [I bought masks] from six places. Four of them were from Ebay."
Even after far and wide, information surrounding her new purchases was scant, Han said.
"After they arrived, I wanted to check. "Are these legitimate? How do I know? I actually went on the FDA's website and tried to look up who's the manufacturer, who made these. Are these legitimate? I just couldn't," Han said. "A lot of the packaging had just a distributor or information on the actual mask — I had no idea who made it."
Not one to be defeated, Han relied on the skills that she deploys when reading and preparing complicated commercial real estate deals. She researched and probed and prodded, scouring the FDA's website for information. She eventually came across Air Queen nano-masks, a three-layered covering that uses nanofibers.
Han, who does not have any financial stake in the company, continued to do her research and learned that a third-party lab tested the Air Queen mask against the ubiquitous N95 masks, which are typically worn by medical staff in a hospital setting. The third-party testing revealed the masks had a filtration efficiency of at least 97 percent. The FDA also certified the Air Queen masks.
FDA certified, which is one step above FDA registered, means that the FDA has determined the manufacturer of the product has demonstrated that its product is "substantially equivalent" to another legally marketed device.
Han compiled all of her research and put it on a website so consumers can easily find it.
"If I were looking for a mask, what kind of information would I want? I would want to see the reports. I would want to see the certifications, all of that stuff," Han said. "The point of all of this is to protect as many people we can. It's a very urgent situation right now in my opinion."
The FDA recently warned that third-party distributors have misrepresented that the Air Queen mask is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This was done without the manufacturer's approval, the FDA said.
However, laboratory testing showed excellent filtration properties, according to lab documents.
Dr. Mark Cameron, an early proponent of public masking and professor at Case Western Reserve University, said it is easy for consumers to be bombarded with information regarding which masks are better than others. While he doesn't dispute the effectiveness of N95 and other medical-grade masks, he said it is vital that people just simply wear any type of mask or facial covering.
"It's very difficult for me to rank the masks in terms of their effectiveness. They are all effective," Dr. Cameron said. "Seven to 8 percent of all of us have the infection whether we know it or not. If you're outdoors and you're looking at a group of 15 people, with the presence of the virus in our community at 7 to 8 percent, you know that one of them is infected, whether they know it or not."
However, Dr. Cameron also applauded Han's efforts to not only do the necessary research but to also help distribute the masks.
"Take a look at the reviews. Take a look at the company. Make sure that you're buying this mask from a reputable source," Dr. Cameron said. "We have been very creative in acquiring those masks and trying to get it into people's hands. That was necessary because for a while we didn't have that type of supply."
For more than a month, Han has been distributing the masks out of her home in Westlake. What little profit she makes, she said, has been poured back into the operation so more masks can be purchased at a lower price. Han has also been working on securing help from corporations that would sponsor area schools in an effort to provide the Air Queen masks to teachers and faculty members.
"I'm just trying to start with the teachers because they are the most at risk. Even for me, if I were a teacher, I would get nervous about all the things they have to do now," Han said. "If we can just get everybody in our community to wear the mask, it will make our family that much safer."