Two masked and gloved security guards stand watch at the entrance of the tented off Emergency Room at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. Photo: Pete Rosos

As more patients infected with the new coronavirus enter Bay Area hospitals, health care workers are facing critical shortages of the masks and other protective gear they need to treat patients without becoming infected themselves. On Monday evening, nurses at Kaiser Permanente facilities across the Bay Area protested this lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Some nurses have said they’ve been asked to reuse N95 masks in violation of Cal/OSHA standards.

Hospitals nationwide are facing these same shortages of protective gear. In a survey conducted by National Nurses United, only 30% of nurses in the U.S. said their employer has enough PPE to keep up with a rapid surge of COVID-19 patients.

Some health care workers have turned to social media to solicit community donations of masks and other items. If you have masks — perhaps left over from fire season — how can you donate them? Should you be wearing one yourself? Here are your top questions answered.

What are N95 respirators and how are they different from regular masks?

An N95 respirator is a tight-fitting mask that can protect its wearer from both droplets and aerosols, such as small particles that are suspended in air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that only certain health care workers use N95s. And, while these masks can be reused in times of crisis, in ideal circumstances they are only used once. They must be fit-tested to be effective.

A surgical mask fits more loosely and only protects against droplets, not aerosols. It’s not considered “respiratory protection.”

I have N95 masks. How can I get them to health care workers?

In Berkeley, Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani is collecting N95s, surgical masks, medical gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Low-risk individuals are being asked to drop off their items at a location to be disclosed after filling out this form, while others can leave donations on their doorstep for pickup.

Berkeley software company Medinas Health has launched Mask Match, which matches people with spare masks with health care workers who request them. It’s taking both N95s and surgical masks, and you should have at least five to donate. Once matched, you’ll ship your masks directly to the health care worker.

Kaiser Permanente Antioch & Walnut Creek is also accepting donated supplies. Email your inquiries about donations to

In Oakland, masks and other gear can be dropped off at the corner of Brooklyn and Hanover avenues from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. More information is available via email, at

KQED has compiled a list of places to donate masks and other protective gear in the broader Bay Area. The DonatePPE website has information too. There’s also Get Me PPE Bay Area, which is arranging pickups of donations.

On March 27, the city of Berkeley announced that it would accept donations of masks, gowns, gloves, hand sanitizer and other protective supplies for the use of its emergency response.

I have a box of N95 masks that I bought during fire season, but it’s open. Can I still donate it?

Yes. Many, though not all, hospitals are accepting donations of open boxes as long as the individual masks are unused. The DonatePPE spreadsheet (above) lists specific requirements for each hospital. Kesarwani is also accepting open boxes.

Should I be wearing a mask?

It’s worth noting that the surgeon general urged the public at the end of February to stop buying masks so that health care workers on the front lines can get the protection they need. The CDC recommends that only health care workers wear N95s.

In early April, Berkeley’s health officer — in line with national guidance — recommended that everyone who leaves home to shop or go to the doctor cover their noses and mouths with cloth.

How can I get a mask if I need one? I’m caring for someone who might have COVID-19.

It’s probably going to be tough to secure your own masks in Berkeley if you don’t already have them. When Berkeleyside called nearly a dozen local pharmacies and hardware stores, most said they had been unable to stock either N95s or surgical masks for weeks or even months.

What about large-scale donations?

A number of companies, including Apple, Salesforce, PG&E and Facebook have said they will or have already donated millions of N95 masks and other PPE, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Can I sew my own masks to donate?

Yes. Some hospitals are using fabric masks over N95 masks to provide some extra protection between patients. Fabric masks can also be donated to vulnerable populations, like essential workers or people living in homeless encampments. See Berkeleyside’s story with links to online resources on how to sew these masks.

In Berkeley, Carolyn Weil of East Bay Heritage Quilters is collecting masks for distribution. You can email for the drop-off location.

Have other questions related to the local impacts of COVID-19? Please let us know.

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