N95 distribution plan could jeopardize small US mask makers
(The Hill) – The Biden administration’s effort to distribute 400 million N95 masks for free has dealt a blow to struggling US mask makers who were just beginning to see sales recover during the recent surge in omicron variants .
According to the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA), their trade group.
“We absolutely support the Biden administration helping to get high-quality masks on people’s faces quickly, but there is an unintended consequence to this action and we hope it will be followed by Buy order-based purchases. American of President Biden,” said Brent Dillie, AMMA president and chief commercial officer of Virginia-based mask maker Premium-PPE.
Most of the domestic mask makers jumped in at the start of the pandemic to ease the shortage of masks in the country due to export restrictions imposed by China.
When businesses, healthcare providers, schools and others were able to go back to buying cheaper Chinese-made respirators — some of which did not meet U.S. standards — demand for U.S.-made masks plummeted and American manufacturers were forced to lay off thousands of workers.
Some companies have survived by selling N95 respirators to individual customers. Sales have exploded over the past six weeks as Americans become increasingly aware that cloth masks aren’t as effective at stopping the omicron variant. However, the companies say Biden’s recent announcement undermined that short-lived revenue boost.
“I think we are at a point of serious risk that these manufacturers could largely disappear, and we would miss our opportunity to maintain the supply here of an essential national security item,” Dillie said.
The federal government will begin distributing N95 masks this week to counter lingering virus cases. They will come from the strategic national stock, which will have around 350 million ventilators remaining.
To replenish the stock, the Biden administration plans to order hundreds of millions more masks from domestic companies — a key opportunity U.S. mask makers have been waiting for — but some smaller operators fear losing out to larger makers who can respond. the federal government’s daunting production requirements.
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told a Senate panel earlier this month that the agency wanted to contract with manufacturers capable of producing 141 million N95 respirators per month.
“We are in the process of reaching a deal for hot manufacturing so that we can maintain this capacity that we currently have even when demand declines,” she told lawmakers.
This is the kind of long-term stability that American mask makers have been looking for.
They are currently reluctant to increase production without knowing if demand will hold up, and this uncertainty has made it difficult to hire and retain workers.
But it’s likely that only the largest domestic manufacturers, like 3M Co. and Honeywell Inc., would be able to produce roughly that output. In a statement, 3M said it has the capacity to manufacture about 100 million N95 respirators per month in its US factories alone.
These companies are not members of AMMA, which represents American small businesses. In total, the 30 member companies of the professional association can produce 70 million N95 masks each month without increasing their current capacity and workforce.
“We will continue to assess the number of masks needed and replenish inventory accordingly – and as we do, we will continue to focus on masks made in the country,” HHS spokeswoman Kirsten Allen said. .
AMMA still hopes to be able to reach an agreement with the Biden administration. The group argues that providing contracts to small U.S. mask makers aligns with Biden’s goal of using purchases to boost small businesses, promote competition and buy American products.
Mask makers also stress that Americans need reliable protection against the fast-spreading omicron variant.
They point out that a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 60% of KN95 masks made in China did not meet US inspection requirements, making them less reliable than N95 respirators certified by the US government.
Anne Miller, executive director of the nonprofit group Project N95, said the CDC finding makes it clear that ensuring a reliable supply of N95 respirators is a “national health priority.” She said federal, state and local governments should only order US-made N95s and that the US should impose penalties on importers who make false claims about the quality of their masks.
“As we know we can expect future outbreaks of COVID and because we want to be prepared, it is essential that we prioritize the use of these masks as a matter of public health and policy. national security,” Miller said. “This can be accomplished through a ‘carrot and stick’ approach of incentives for good masks and penalties for bad ones.”
U.S. manufacturers have received a boost from lawmakers on both sides, who have consistently urged Biden to prioritize U.S.-made ventilators. In a recent letter, Senate Democrats urged Biden to secure “long-term contracts for the purchase of masks made by American workers in the United States with American materials.”
“We must not compromise the health of Americans by shopping based primarily on lowest cost. Purchasing PPE made by American workers here in the United States supports domestic manufacturing and helps ensure a more reliable and consistent supply chain for these essential products,” said lawmakers, led by Senators Tammy Baldwin. (D-Wis.) and Sherrod Brown (D- Ohio), wrote in the letter.