N95 Masks

U.S. Companies Making N95 Masks For COVID Struggle As Cheap Chinese Masks Return : NPR

A machine makes masks in a medical-equipment factory in the U.S. on Feb. 15. U.S. manufacturers stepped in when hospitals were left scrambling by a N95 respirator shortage in 2020. Now, some of those companies are struggling to sell their masks.

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A machine makes masks in a medical-equipment factory in the U.S. on Feb. 15. U.S. manufacturers stepped up when hospitals were left scrambling by a N95 respirator shortage in 2020. Now, some of those companies are struggling to sell their masks.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

A year after several American businesses sprang up to manufacture much-needed masks and N95 respirators within U.S. borders, many of those businesses are now on the brink of financial collapse, shutting down production and laying off workers.

The nationwide vaccination campaign, combined with an influx of cheaper, Chinese-made masks and N95 respirators, has dramatically cut into the companies’ sales and undermined their prices.

Although some people consider it a normal result of a free marketplace, some business owners feel abandoned and unable to save American lives by the same government that relied upon them during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is not only a matter of national security but of national pride,” A group of them wrote last month to President Biden asking for government assistance.

Armbrust American and dozens of other companies responded to the nation’s request for more domestic production.

Armbrust bought a plant near Austin, Texas using its own resources, and without any government assistance. It hired over 100 workers, applied for complicated certification, and began manufacturing.

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“We started at the height of the pandemic really, in April, and very, very quickly, in about six months, we were able to scale up to producing about a million masks per day. And today we produce both surgical and N95-style masks,” Lloyd Armbrust was the founder and CEO.

Business was doing well, until the mass vaccination effort dramatically reduced demand for masks. Armbrust now predicts that he can continue to operate the plant for at most four more months before closing it down completely. “We are down to a skeleton crew on the alternate shifts and just barely a full crew on the main shift,” He stated.

At the beginning of this year, Armbrust and 27 other small-business mask manufacturers formed the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA).

“Let me put this in perspective: We have 28 members who are going to go out of business in the next 60 to 90 days, and when they go out of business, it’s not like we turn off the lights and mothball these machines. We send them to the dump. That capacity that we created goes away,” Armbrust said. He said that five of the AMMA member companies have already stopped production.

Foreign dependency

These recent entrants into the mask-manufacturing industry are not the only companies cutting back on production, laying off workers and fighting for a share of a market long dominated by foreign-made products.

On May 5, 2020, a worker in a Honeywell factory in Phoenix uses N95 respirators.

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A worker at a Honeywell factory in Phoenix works on N95 respirators on May 5, 2020.

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Before the pandemic began, about 10 American companies were actively making N95 respirators, according to Anne Miller, executive director of the nonprofit ProjectN95, a national clearinghouse for PPE founded in 2020. Honeywell and 3M, which are larger companies, also made N95s in foreign factories. According to industry experts less than 10% were made in the United States.

In early 2020, China, the world’s largest manufacturer of masks, was also fighting the pandemic and nationalized its manufacturing. The U.S. market, which depended mostly on masks from China, was essentially cut out.

“China, realizing that they have a crisis on their hands, restricted the export of all masks to the United States,” Robert Handfield, North Carolina State University professor of supply chain management, said that the U.S. market was effectively cut off. So, while those companies were still producing, he says, they were forbidden by the Chinese government from shipping the masks to the United States.

Even American companies like Honeywell and 3M, who primarily manufacture overseas, were subject to restrictions. “3M was unable to get shipments from its own factories in China back to the United States because the exports were being prevented by the Chinese government from leaving the country,” Handfield said. The inability to get masks from abroad led to shortages domestically that put the U.S. in a precarious position.

The dependency on China and other foreign countries was nothing new, recalled Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, one of the oldest domestic manufacturers of masks in the United States.

Prestige Ameritech increased production in 2009 to meet domestic demand during the H1N1 pandemic.

Honeywell and 3M, which were larger companies than 3M, made N95 respirators abroad before the pandemic. According to industry experts, less than 10% of N95 respirators used in America were made domestically.

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Before the pandemic, larger companies such as Honeywell and 3M manufactured N95 respirators in factories abroad. According to industry experts, less than 10% of N95 respirators used in America were made domestically.

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“Last time we were stupid,” Bowen said. “We believed everyone when they said they would stay with us. … We’re buying a factory, we’re building more machines, we’re hiring people, but you got to stay with us. And everybody said they would, but they didn’t.”

The market dried up immediately after the health scare ended. The aftermath was harsh — laid-off workers, financial losses — but he survived.

Bowen tried to be a little more cautious this time.

“It’s like people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have the cheapest prices — they want China prices — but then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can’t get their Chinese products. That doesn’t work,” Bowen said. One N95 respirator in China costs 25 cents to make. The cost of producing the same product in the U.S. may be more than twice.

Bowen’s business was overwhelmed by new orders after the COVID-19 epidemic. His facility uses mainly domestically sourced raw material, so he took a new step. To meet the increasing demand, he increased production and added more machines. His labor force grew by more than threefold.

Now, much cheaper masks from abroad have reentered the market yet again, as China has lifted export embargoes, competing directly against masks made in America. Bowen has six machines unused in his factory.

“They want to have the cheapest prices — they want China prices — but then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can’t get their Chinese products. That doesn’t work,” Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, told NPR.

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“They want to have the cheapest prices — they want China prices — but then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can’t get their Chinese products. That doesn’t work,” Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, told NPR.

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Susanne Gerson is the executive vice president of the Louis M. Gerson Co. in Middleboro, Mass. Gerson has been in business for many years, much like Bowen. “We’ve been in business for approximately 60 years, and we’ve been making N95 respirators since about 1985. So we’re a very experienced respiratory manufacturer,” She agreed.

Gerson said that she began receiving calls from Massachusetts doctors when the pandemic began.

“I actually had people crying when I would talk to them on the phone that they didn’t know what to do — women doctors who were pregnant and they weren’t being provided any protection,” She said.

The company made a decision to reconfigure its business from making masks for industrial workers to making masks for health care workers, doubling the workforce on the floor and modifying the facility.

“I think people outside of manufacturing don’t understand what it takes to produce a product where we’re the most critical part of this whole process and yet we’re the most ignored,” She said.

“We have not had to lay off people, but if things don’t clear up in the pipeline and we don’t get some of this confusion addressed, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” She continued.

Bowen and Gerson are calling on the Biden administration not to allow Chinese products to continue to flood the United States.

“We ramped up our capacity to such a level based on what we thought were commitments from new customers and people saying, ‘No, we’re going to need product,’ and being told this by the government and by everyone. And then it’s just like, poof, they’re not sure,” She said.

On April 1, 2020, a New England Patriots jet arrives in Boston Logan International Airport with a huge shipment of N95 respirators from China. It will be used in New York and Boston. When the pandemic started, Susanne Gerson, executive vice president of a mask manufacturer in Massachusetts, said she began receiving calls personally from doctors in the state looking for personal protective equipment.

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A New England Patriots jet arrives at Boston Logan International Airport on April 1, 2020, with a massive shipment of N95 respirators from China to be used in Boston and New York. When the pandemic started, Susanne Gerson, executive vice president of a mask manufacturer in Massachusetts, said she began receiving calls personally from doctors in the state looking for personal protective equipment.

Jim Davis/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Gerson is also calling for more clarity around the emergency use authorization that allowed for the reuse of masks, a response to severe shortages that no longer exist.

“We are required to put that on our packaging by the FDA when we make a respirator — that it’s a single-use product. And yet my understanding is they are still being used … oftentimes I think what the hospital is doing is they’re putting the other mask over the N95 as a way of trying to keep it clean. But it wasn’t designed like that,” She said.

The shifting market has also had a negative impact on larger manufacturers.

Honeywell recently announced it would stop producing N95 respirators at two facilities in Smithfield and Phoenix. More than 1,000 employees will be laid off. The company claims that it has made permanent changes in its structure to allow for a quicker ramp-up the next time there is an opportunity. “While we have closed some of our manual operations efforts at two facilities, we are maintaining the automated lines to continue to fulfill orders and can ramp back up as needed,” Eric Krantz, spokesperson for Honeywell, said that the company has made permanent changes to its structure.

Asking for change

The foreign-dependence vulnerability is something both the White House and members of Congress are well aware of.

For nearly three decades, Anna Eshoo represented California’s 18th Congressional District near San Jose. She also chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health.

Following a hearing in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2020, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.Calif., spoke to the media.

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Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, speaks to the media following a hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2020.

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“Shame on us that we found ourselves in the position that we were in, especially at the height of the pandemic and the risk that our health care workers had to take and did take,” said Eshoo, a Democrat who has often spoken against foreign dependence on commodities, such as PPE and pharmaceuticals, and lack of domestic manufacturing.

“This is a warped picture of America,” She said. “We can do so much better.”

According to the White House, it is currently working on a strategy to improve the resilience of pandemic supply chains. Recent legislation signed by President Obama included $10 billion to invest in additional manufacturing capacity, PPE contracts, and other investments.

Armbrust said, like many members of the AMMA that he knew he was taking a risk.

“I made a stupid decision, because I’m an entrepreneur and I cared about our country and bringing this strategic manufacturing back,” He said. “A bunch of people made bad decisions personally to do something that was right at the time, and that to me is the American spirit.”

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