The University should provide N95 masks for all students

Samia Arni, Columnist

As COVID-19 cases surge across Texas due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, there has been a renewed call for mask-wearing as masking is one of the most effective ways to control the spread of COVID-19. However, many of these proposals fail to acknowledge that not all masks provide the same level of protection.

 

The N95 and other equivalents, such as the KN95 and KF94, are the most effective at reducing and preventing COVID cases due to their fit and ability to filter more than 95% of all air particles, which is how an airborne virus like COVID spreads. Therefore, like other tools necessary to fight the pandemic, UT should make N95s widely accessible to all students and faculty.

Due to official state policy, UT is not allowed to mandate masks or vaccines. However, the University has promoted many of these measures through University Health Services; for example, vaccines and tests are widely available. As proper masks are another key tool in the fight against the pandemic, why not make them available to all students as well?

In an emailed statement, UT issues and communications manager Eliska Padilla explained why the University hasn’t taken this initiative.

“UT is centrally providing disposable (surgical) masks at no cost to all staff, faculty, assistant instructors and teaching assistants who are on campus this semester,” Padilla said. “National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved N95 masks are made available to employees (including student employees) in higher-risk environments, specifically health care environments, for individuals providing medical care to patients during COVID.”  

While providing N95 masks to employees is a great start, this initiative should be extended to students, considering the level of interaction we have daily through classes and on-campus events.

“I think the University should be providing high quality masks,” Sameeha Rizvi, public health and social work junior and co-founder of the COVID-19 safety coalition, said. “Especially given the fact that we have in-person school, and that we have over 50,000 students that are back on campus.”

For students, investing in better masks can be a challenge. Legitimate ones can be hard to find, as nearly 60% of the ones sold are not proven to be effective. 

Jerold Holman, government, sociology and international relations sophomore, discussed his experiences trying to buy N95 masks.

“It has been very frustrating trying to find the most preventative measures,” Holman said. “Before I moved in, my family went on an hour-long shopping trip trying to find these (N95) masks, and it took forever to find them.”

While there are suppliers such as ProjectN95 and Bona Fide Masks that are working to make proper masks more accessible, they can be expensive for students. Additionally, prices have been drastically increasing since the rise of the Omicron variant and the increased demand around proper masks.

These challenges have made it increasingly difficult for students to take this protective measure. The University, on the other hand, has better access to high quality suppliers and far more resources to do so.

“We are one of the richest universities in the nation,” Rizvi said. “Knowing that UT can afford to host very lavish events, and invest their money on lots of big and great things for us, they should be able to invest in something as important as basic public health.”

The University has the ability to promote behaviour that protects our community by ensuring everyone has access to proper tools that help us stay healthy. By providing N95s or masks of equivalent efficiency for students, we can continue in-person classes and semester activities while preventing a further surge in cases.

Arni is a Political Communication and Urban Studies sophomore from Austin, TX.