I don’t have any more details yet either, but I trust my junior Senator:
Mass General Hospital needs 3D printed masks. Who can help? https://t.co/ROuELJHIaP
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) March 19, 2020
— Ryan Kath (@RyanNBCBoston) March 19, 2020
Given CDC recommendation to use home made masks in the event of a mask shortage, here is a comparison of filtration properties of different materials … https://t.co/Z4EmcoGVPU
— C. Michael Gibson MD (@CMichaelGibson) March 19, 2020
The shortage of face masks is so severe that the CDC is now advising nurses and other health care providers that they can "use homemade masks" like a "bandana" or "scarf" "as a last resort" — even though it admits the effectiveness "is unknown."https://t.co/nA5D9gXgoi
— Geoff Bennett (@GeoffRBennett) March 19, 2020
I’d really like to hear more about measures to drastically increase N95 mask production.
We’ve got a ton of people who need jobs, we need to address critical shortages among health care providers, and any kind of “back to normal-ish” scenario involves widespread mask use.
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) March 19, 2020
— Nobody’s Flying (@FlyingMezerkis) March 19, 2020
… US mask manufacturers say they are experiencing unprecedented demand. With the pandemic and trade restrictions pressuring already-overwhelmed global supply chains, companies are struggling to keep up. Like much of the mask manufacturing industry, industrial giant 3M has been ramping up production since January—including expanding the output of its US based factories, hosting job fairs, and hiring employees on the spot. Yet some US hospitals are still unable to obtain new shipments of surgical masks and N95 respirators.
“There’s a really, really high demand for respirators and really all other products being used in response to the coronavirus to help treat and protect people,” Jennifer Ehrlich, communications manager for 3M told WIRED. “It’s more demand than any one company can supply, and we expect it to remain high for the foreseeable future.”
One reason is that over the last two decades China has become the primary manufacturer for the world’s masks and respirators. When the virus swept through China in late 2019 and early 2020, the country’s increased need for masks dealt a double whammy to the global supply. The US is particularly reliant on China for masks and other medical gear. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 95 percent of surgical masks and 70 percent of respirators used in the US are made overseas, and China is one of the biggest producers.
“We were already in the middle of a bad flu season, and now we’re having a pandemic in the middle of the flu. Couple that with with American hospitals gearing up, people panic buying, and China now cutting off a good portion of the masks they send to the US—it’s a perfect storm,” says Bowen.
That’s led to a lot of hard decisions for manufacturers. Faced with hundreds of millions of orders a day, and a limited number of masks, Prestige Ameritech decided to sell only to hospitals, rather than the general public, and has prioritized working with medical centers that will sign five-year contracts, to reduce the likelihood that the company will have to lay off all its new employees once the pandemic subsides.
The policy is rooted in history. The last time the country faced a comparable mask shortage was during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. To meet increased demand, Prestige Ameritech hired hundreds of new employees and expanded its manufacturing capabilities. But after the outbreak died down, Bowen says that most hospitals that had relied on Prestige Ameritech went back to Chinese suppliers, which typically sell masks and respirators for less than it costs him to produce.
In 2011, after the H1N1 pandemic ended, we had to lay off 150 people,” he recalls. “One hundred fifty people that saved a lot of hospitals from closing their doors were rewarded by losing their jobs. And that’s not going to happen again.”
Bowen says that about a fourth of the calls and emails he receives are from people who fell victim to scammers and fraudsters trying to profit off of the dearth of masks for ordinary people. 3M also says it has seen a sizable number of fraud cases in the wake of the pandemic. Bowen says that he regularly receives multiple messages a day from people who paid significantly higher than market rate prices on Amazon or eBay for supposedly new masks, only to find that the products were decades old and effectively unusable…