Some of the KN95 masks that have arrived from China. (Photo by Mark Linsey)

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The COVID-19-induced scramble to obtain face masks hit home for Bay Area tech entrepreneur Mark Linsey when his father, a Southern California physician, told Mark he was facing a shortage.

Linsey set off to find a face mask supply for his dad, but with talk of price gouging and the resale of stolen supplies, he wanted to avoid competing for the scarce N95 masks in America.

“I didn’t want to be fighting over the same limited pool,” Linsey said.

Mark Linsey has purchased 60,000 masks from China.

So, he looked outside the country and found that millions of medical-grade KN95 masks were in stock in China at a cost that was competitive and, in some cases, lower than the price charged for N95 masks in America.

The KN95 masks, which are certified by the Chinese government, are almost identical to the N95s that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent study by 3M Company found China KN95 masks are “equivalent” to U.S. N95s for filtering non-oil-based particles such as bioaerosols (e.g. viruses), and on Friday the Food and Drug Administration said it would allow the use of KN95s.

After speaking with many people in the medical community, Linsey found that physicians, nurses and some hospitals would gladly use the KN95s in view of the current supply shortage.

There was one problem, however; the suppliers in China would only allow orders of masks in the tens of thousands — not just a few hundred. With a base price of $2.95 per unit, Linsey needed tens of thousands of dollars to place his first order — money he didn’t readily have.

So to secure enough for a bulk order, Linsey launched a GoFundMe page and began soliciting his social network.

And through the crowdfunding platform and other funding sources, Linsey succeeded in raising $130,000 and so far has purchased 60,000 masks.

“I started this solely trying to find masks for my dad and the physicians he works with. I didn’t envision a mass fundraiser for physicians across California,” Linsey said.

Dr. Paul Lee, chief internal medicine resident at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, sports a face mask as he receives a delivery of KN95 masks.

Despite several flight delays and customs inquiries, this week Linsey was able to deliver 20,000 KN95 masks to hospitals in the Los Angeles area. 

Next, Lindsey plans to distribute masks across the Bay Area. “Santa Clara Valley, the San Mateo Medical Center, Stanford Hospital, Mills-Peninsula, and Zuckerberg General are currently on our list, though we have yet to distribute to any of these,” Linsey said.

Linsey plans to continue for at least another major round of shipments and to extend the initiative outside California. 

“A couple weeks ago, everyone expected San Francisco and L.A. to follow similar trajectories as New York City,” he said. “It’s clear now that for the moment, New York is heavily impacted, so we are starting to talk to hospitals there.” 

With no certainty as to how long the novel coronavirus pandemic and shortage will last, Linsey has provided hospitals with details of his suppliers in China.

Still, his underlying hope is that U.S. manufacturers will ramp up production of N95 masks.

“I’d be extremely happy if the need for this sort of project no longer exists.”