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Why Are N95 Masks Still So Difficult to Get?

Why Are N95 Masks Still So Difficult to Get?

Saturday, 12 September, 2020 - 04:45

Last week — which is to say, six months into a pandemic that has killed more than 185,000 Americans — the American Nurses Association released the results of a survey of its membership. The survey asked whether nurses were still experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE.


The answer was a resounding yes. “A third reported that they were out of or short of N95 respirators designed to offer maximum protection in a hospital setting,” according to Bloomberg News. (They are called N95s because they filter out 95% of airborne particulates, including viruses.)


Early in the pandemic, N95 masks were in such short supply that hospital personnel were reusing them for days at a time instead of following the proper protocol of discarding them after a single use. Today, that is still the case; almost 60% of the nurses surveyed said they’re “re-using single-use protective equipment for five or more days, and 68% said their facilities mandate re-using the supplies,” Bloomberg reported.


When I emailed a top hospital administrator to ask whether mask shortages had eased up, she sent me a one-line reply: “Supply chain is still royally screwed up, and can’t get N95s.”


How can this be? The initial shortage of N95s in March and April was more or less understandable. According to 3M Co., the biggest mask maker in the US, demand for N95s didn’t just double or triple in the wake of the pandemic; it rose 40-fold. Hospitals needed them, but so did dental offices, long-term care facilities, Covid-19 testing sites and many other facilities.


The effort to acquire N95s became a mad scramble. The supply chain collapsed. “Brokers”(1) popped up everywhere, claiming to have access to millions of masks, supposedly stored in warehouses in Los Angeles or Guangzhou or Seoul. Usually, these claims were bogus, but even when they weren’t, obtaining those masks was extraordinarily difficult, with dozens of brokers all promising to deliver the same masks. The market was filled with fakes. Oil traders and hedge funds jumped in, trading masks as if they were oil futures. The price for many masks shot up from around $1 to as much as $5 or $6. Meanwhile, 3M — which has not raised its prices during the pandemic — ramped up production from 22 million N95s a month before the pandemic to 50 million by June. It wasn’t nearly enough.


Today, 3M’s US run rate is 1 billion N95s a year. Worldwide, it expects to be churning them out at a rate of 2 billion a year by the end of 2020. The company has also imported tens of millions of N95s from its facilities in China under an agreement with President Donald Trump, who invoked the Defense Production Act. Honeywell International Inc. is also manufacturing N95s for the US market, as are a handful of other companies.


Still, hospitals and other entities, including state governments, are having nearly as much difficulty obtaining N95s as they did early in the pandemic. The scarcity has not eased. The N95 black market is still going strong. States are still bidding against one another for mask supplies. Counterfeits and substandard masks are still being sold as the real thing (although 3M has worked hard to rid the market of bogus 3M masks). The only reason this isn’t a bigger issue is that the influx of Covid-19 hospital patients has eased. But if the pandemic has a second wave in the fall, as many fear, it’s going to get ugly again.


Consider the situation in Minnesota. The state has orders for more than 5 million N95s, which it hopes to allocate to hospitals that need them. According to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, it has received only 337,000 masks so far through traditional 3M distributors.


Minnesota contracted with Supply Link Inc., a small Ohio company, for an additional 2 million N95s, for which it agreed to pay $4.75 each — or $9.5 million in total.


Matthew Kaspar, Supply Link’s president, told me that the company had lined up the purchase, signed a sales agreement and found financiers to front the down payment, which the state was prevented from doing by law. “I actually had Minnesota on the phone with the so-called distributor,” said Melissa Hill, the Supply Link executive in charge of the deal. The distributor assured state officials that it was all on the up-and-up.


Bloomberg


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