Berkeley distributes KN95 masks to unhoused residents

N95 Masks
Josh Kahen/File
As respirator masks, N95 and KN95 masks offer more protection from smoke and airborne particles than cloth masks do.

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In response to the poor air quality resulting from wildfires throughout California, the city of Berkeley has begun distributing KN95 masks to the city’s unhoused population.

The city plans to distribute 1,000 KN95 masks through the city’s Emergency Operations Center outreach team, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. He added that the outreach team began distributing masks last week and that the effort is ongoing.

“In addition (to) these efforts, we have been working throughout this period to get people who are unhoused – especially those with underlying health concerns — into shelters, trailers that we have established for respite,” Chakko said in an email. “We are continuing that work and hope to get more people into those units.”

Yoko Imajo, co-founder of Masks2All, an organization that distributes cloth masks to unhoused individuals in the Bay Area, said in accordance with the city’s initiative KN95 masks would provide better protection against wildfire smoke than cloth masks.

As outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, cloth face coverings are useful in preventing the spread of illnesses such as COVID-19. While cloth masks prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, respirator masks like the N95 and KN95 filter airborne particles and offer more protection from wildfire smoke, according to the FDA.

Resulting from shortages of N95 masks during the pandemic, the FDA has approved the use of KN95 masks for protection against airborne particles as long as they meet certain standards. While a KN95 mask offers similar protection to a N95 mask, it has different standards that make it less efficient.

“It’s really needed,” Imajo said about the mask distribution. “It has gotten really hard to breathe outside and I can’t imagine if someone has respiratory issues and is not sheltered right now.”

Ian Buddy, lead organizer for the Where Do We Go Berkeley homeless encampment and advocacy organization, echoed Imajo’s thoughts, saying that the smoke from the fires added another concern to unhoused individuals, especially those with preexisting respiratory issues.

Buddy added that he has seen many individuals wearing cloth masks at the various encampments he has visited, but he did not recall seeing anyone with N95 or KN95 masks. 

In order to spread awareness of the initiative better, Buddy and Imajo suggested that the city use its presence on social media as well as post on recently added bulletin boards in the encampments.

“The city moves slow sometimes, but if they are implementing a serious distribution, I would hope the masks have already gone out,” Buddy said in an email. “Many people out there are in poor health and should not have been outside 24/7 for this long without a mask.”

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.