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Westminster provides N95 masks to community amidst Omicron surge

Woman sits in office with large glass windows
A box of N95 masks sits outside of the Dean of Students Office, while an employee works inside Jan.13. Glenn Smith, vice president of student affairs, said he hopes to be able to organize the distribution of additional masks throughout the semester. Photo courtesy of Q W. Image description: A woman sits behind a desk in an office with glass windows. There are boxes of N95 masks sitting in front of her.

Westminster College announced Jan. 11 they would provide N95 masks, free for students, faculty and staff members to pick up in various locations around campus. People were encouraged to take up to two masks as the community continues to navigate the school year with a surge of new COVID-19 cases in the state. 

“We decided to try to provide masks as part of Westminster College’s commitment to student health and safety,” said Glenn Smith, vice president for student affairs and an organizer of the N95 mask distribution efforts. “Early in the pandemic we had donors provide us with gifts to help with our efforts, thus, the funding for the masks came straight from our wonderful supporters.”

Westminster purchased around 3,000 masks to begin with and only about 1,000 of the original supply remains, according to Smith. The school delivered two masks for each residential student in their mailboxes, and the rest have been left in designated pick up spots on campus, according to Smith. 

The masks are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and are located in front of the Dean of Students Office, the front desk at the Health, Wellness and Athletic Center and the Purple Basket inside Carleson Hall. 

“I expect we will run out of the original resource in another week or so, but we are working on more to come,” Smith said in an email. 

Many students said they have been unable to access the masks because they are attending classes remotely. 

Masks individually wrapped in plastic
A box of individually packaged N95 masks placed in front of the Dean of Students Office in the Shaw Student Center, Jan. 13. The masks will be available until the current supply runs out, according to Glenn Smith. Photo courtesy of Q W. Image description: a hand holds up masks individually wrapped in plastic.

Claire McKay, a fine arts and English major said, “I have not, since I’m not living on campus and am attending all my classes remotely for now.”

McKay said she wears a level 3 surgical mask all the time, and will definitely wear an N95 when she is able to grab one. 

A level 3 surgical mask is designed with four layers to promote comfort, fluid protection and breathability, according to Cardinal Health.

Some students said they are wondering if the masks will still be available when they return to campus. 

“I am a little concerned that there may not be any masks left when I return to campus,” McKay said. “I’m not sure where I would get N95s if Westminster runs out.”

Glenn Smith said the team behind mask distribution efforts will keep trying to get more supply if there is need as the term goes on. 

“Demand in the U.S. is very high so this will become more challenging,” Smith said.

Some community members said they have been passionate about safety throughout the pandemic. 

“I have taken the pandemic pretty seriously since I work as a [certified nursing assistant] on a [COVID-19] unit,” Emily Racette, a junior nursing major, said in a text message. “I have been choosing to not go out much, since I know my immune system already isn’t the best, and I don’t want to be sick and get backed up in school.”

A box of N95 masks sits in front of the Dean of Students Office in the Shaw Student Center, Jan. 13. This is one of three pick up locations on campus, according to Glenn Smith, vice president of student affairs. Photo courtesy of Q W. Image description: A box of masks sits outside of an office.

Reagan Vigil, a senior psychology major, said she has been utilizing N95 masks since the news of the Omicron surge. 

“I think it’s vital to use the best quality masks to prevent exposure,” Vigil said. “They are becoming more scarce and expensive, so it’s great that Westminster offers this resource.”

Westminster is providing N95 masks, not KN95 masks. The difference between the two is where each is certified, according to a New York Times article. N95 masks are  regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the New York Times article. In contrast, KN95 masks are made to meet Chinese standards for masks, according to the article

The most widely available respirators that meet an international standard are KN95 respirators, according to the CDC

Both masks are designed to capture 95% of particles and prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19, according to Thomas Talhelm at Smart Air Filters.

While the use of N95 masks could help to prevent community spread of the virus on campus, Smith said he wanted to give a reminder to the community of other ways to stay vigilant. 

“The leadership at Westminster College continues to work daily to mitigate the spread of COVID on campus,” Smith said in an email. “This is a team effort and requires that all students, faculty, administration and staff, remain committed to caring for each other. This means wearing masks indoors, getting booster shots and practicing healthy self-care. I firmly believe that these efforts will keep the Westminster College community as safe as possible.”

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KC Carter (she/her) is a senior at Westminster College studying communication. She has a passion for art and design and doesn’t do anything without adding a pop of bright color. She jumps on any opportunity to go to a concert and loves to spend time with her pandemic puppy, Sunny.

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