The news: Throughout the pandemic, Google prevented companies from marketing N95 respirators on its shopping and advertising platforms.
The goal was to protect consumers from counterfeit products or price gouging and make sure health care workers had adequate access to high-quality masks, which were in short supply for much of 2020.
Other tech companies have taken similar measures. Facebook has temporarily prohibited ads for medical masks, such as N95s.
Over the summer, some mask manufacturers complained that policy didn’t line up with health guidance and curtailed sales.
Last week, Google reversed course and now allows approved merchants to promote N95s through Google Shopping and ads in the U.S. Outside the U.S., Google will only allow listings for approved “N95-adjacent” masks, such as KN95s.
“We believe this will help users find more types of masks to meet their needs while also continuing to protect them from counterfeit goods,” a Google spokesperson said via email.
The details: In the U.S., mask sellers will be approved by Project N95, a nonprofit clearinghouse that has vetted personal protective equipment for health care providers since 2020. The digital compliance company LegitScript will approve listings outside the U.S.
Brian Wolin, CEO of mask maker Protective Health Gear, said his products were inspected by Project N95 last fall and the company’s products automatically appeared online.
Companies that haven’t been approved yet can apply online. The application form asks for product specifications, documentation of regulatory approvals and product photos.
The rationale: The decision to block mask sales and the decision to reverse course were driven by guidance from public health organizations, according to a Google spokesperson.
However, some of those health organizations started signaling that health care providers had sufficient mask supplies months ago.
In May the CDC indicated the supply of N95 masks had increased significantly and told hospitals to stop using crisis capacity strategies. In July, the Department of Health and Human Services removed N95 respirators and surgical masks from its list of scarce resources.
Google did not respond to questions about the timing of the decision.
The impact: Brent Dillie, a partner at a PPE manufacturer and the founder of the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association, said the prohibition on mask ads through Google hurt the smaller manufacturers that are part of his organization.
“It was very frustrating, especially when the market started to slow down,” he told FreightWaves. “There wasn’t any shortage. A lot of members were really frustrated that they were still having trouble getting onto this system.”
During the first half of 2021, as COVID-19 case numbers in the U.S. dropped and the PPE supply stabilized, many health care providers stocked up on masks.
Wolin said that made it hard to sell large numbers of masks to hospitals. Instead, he wanted to sell N95 masks to consumers for day-to-day use.
The Google policy was a major barrier, but he’s hoping the change will make it easier to reach those customers. In fact, Wolin welcomes the new vetting process because he believes it will help root out fraud and make the marketplace easier for customers to navigate.
“People aren’t vaccinated, and there are variants that are breaking through,” he told FreightWaves. “We want to be able to supply our N95s to the general public and to hospitals.”
Mask demand in the U.S. fell in late spring when case numbers reached historical lows. Wolin said he’s seen a significant uptick in demand, including from hospitals, as the delta variant drives up new cases.
A Google spokesperson said the risk of the delta variant is another reason the company changed course.
What’s next? The Google spokesperson said the company will continue testing processes to prevent price gouging and fraud while expanding options for consumers.