How to clean and reuse your KN95, N95 mask as prices surge

SEATTLE — More guidance changes may be coming from the CDC. This time the agency is considering a recommendation for the general public to upgrade their face masks to KN95 or N95.

But from buying new masks to shopping for home tests, the cost of safety in the pandemic is adding up.

Rapid tests cost about $20 to $30 at pharmacies if you can find any. Pharmacies across Seattle are sold out and it’s forcing people in a hurry to get tested to look for more expensive options.

The prices on the more protective KN95 and N95 masks are surging too.

“Now that it’s required, they definitely rose the price up I’ve noticed,” said Jasmin Garcia, who works in Seattle.

A top-selling pack of 40 KN95 masks on Amazon shows that the price has tripled over the past month, according to the website CamelCamelCamel. The item shot up from $26.99 in December to $75.99 on January 11.

To help save some money and reduce waste, researchers say there are several ways to clean your mask effectively. The studies were conducted during the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a shortage of PPE for medical workers.

The Journal of Emergency Medicine says leaving a N95 mask in a paper bag for 3-4 days is a good option, and “All SARS-CoV-2 viruses on the mask will be dead in 3 days.”

A study by a team of Harvard/Beth Israel doctors found you can also microwave-steam a mask, rigging up a system with household items. They put 60 ml (about 2 ounces) of distilled water in a glass Tupperware, then covered it with mesh from a produce bag and secured it. They set the mask on top and microwaved it for three minutes. Researchers said the microwave steaming method was highly effective at cleaning the mask.

“Employing this methodology against MS2 phage, a highly conservative surrogate for SARS-CoV-2 contamination, we report an average 6-log10 plaque-forming unit (PFU) (99.9999%) and a minimum 5-log10 PFU (99.999%) reduction after a single 3-min microwave treatment. Notably, quantified respirator fit and function were preserved, even after 20 sequential cycles of microwave steam decontamination,” the study said.

As for the nosepiece, the study said, “It is important to note that the microwave treatment did not result in sparks even when there was metal present on the N95, which is consistent with previous reports.” (This reporter does not own a microwave and did not test this method. Try at your own risk.)

Rapid tests are costing people more too.

Pharmacies across the city have signs up that say, “Covid rapid tests out of stock!” Appointments at free test sites across Seattle still require people to book at least a few days out.

Harrison Shoberg said when he needed a test last week, he finally found a company that would deliver him one the same day, but says he paid a premium.

“It’s frustrating,” Shoberg said. “Then you have to tip the delivery driver,” he said.

Others turning to stores like Costco for a saliva PCR test (only available in-person at some locations), but that will cost you about $120.

However, starting Saturday, January 15, the US Surgeon General says you’ll be able to get reimbursed for rapid tests as part of a new plan from the Biden administration.

“The way it will work is that you will be able to purchase a test and get reimbursed by insurance company. We are also looking to create as many incentives as possible to make sure the insurance companies can actually cover that costs up front so there’s no out-of-pocket cost,” said Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General.

Each person will be able to get eight tests a month reimbursed.

“I think that’s a good idea. Certainly we shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for these kinds of things, especially with how the pandemic is kind of raging at the moment,” Shoberg said.