Vending machines offer disposable face masks

UTD joins other universities selling PPE to students

Smrithi Upadhyayula
Mercury Staff

Vending machines across UTD are now selling disposable surgical face masks to help students safely return to life on campus.

As schools and businesses begin to reopen amidst mounting safety concerns, they’re implementing a variety of strategies to keep people safe. One method of increasing the accessibility of personal protective equipment – putting PPE in vending machines – has been on the rise in malls, airports and universities. UTD recently joined a growing number of American universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University and Marshall University, in adding PPE products to its vending machines. The surgical masks are from Honest PPE Supply, a Texas-based family business founded in February to provide affordable PPE during the pandemic. Each mask is being sold for $1.50, and a detailed map of the vending machines’ locations can be found on the UTD dining website.

UTD also provided customized cloth masks to students when they moved onto campus. Political science freshman Jeffrey Vancil said he feels this negates part of the benefit of having masks in vending machines.

“I feel like since everybody’s already been given one or two cloth masks (…) it’s not going to make much of a difference,” Vancil said. “I don’t feel like people really use the surgical masks over cloth masks because they see them as disposable, and disposable is expensive.”

Another concern is the type of mask being sold. Lea Aubrey, director of the Student Health Center at UTD, listed important points to consider when choosing a mask.

“When selecting a mask, it should have two or more layers of fabric, completely cover the student’s nose and mouth, and fit snugly against the sides of their face and not have any gaps,” Aubrey said.

Honest PPE Supply sells its KN95 respirators for $2.95, and Vancil said he believes that putting them in the vending machines instead of or in addition to surgical masks would be a worthy investment.

KN95 masks are the Chinese standard for respirator masks and are analogous to the American N95. The biggest difference between KN95s and surgical masks is that KN95s can filter both incoming and outgoing particles as small as 300 nanometers, while surgical masks only filter outgoing particles. Although the coronavirus itself is only 125 nanometers wide, the water and dust particles it frequently travels on are much larger than that and are easily filtered by the KN95. Jeff Rojas, a manager from Honest PPE Supply, said that because of their sealing capacity, KN95 masks offer better protection than surgical masks.

“On the surgical masks, there is no sealing around the nose and mouth,” Rojas said. “On the other hand, the KN95 mask has tight sealing around the nose and mouth, which makes most of the air that goes in pass through the mask. These masks should have, in order to be classified as 95, a minimum filtration efficiency of 95%.”

Vancil also said he supports KN95 masks as an alternative to both cloth masks and surgical masks.

Although the masks’ effectiveness can decrease with reuse due to excess exposure to moisture, they will remain more effective than cloth masks because of the smaller size of their pores and better sealing shape. But since they are technically disposable, using KN95s every day could be financially difficult for students. 

“We are supposed to tell you that they are one-time use and disposable,” Rojas said. “But that really adds up and starts to cost a lot.”

 Rojas also has some tips for students who want to reuse masks.

“Our best advice for students interested in reusing masks to save some pennies is to use a trick that many are currently applying to extend the masks’ lifetime: using a cloth mask above the KN95 mask, which helps protect the mask from air,” Rojas said.