(The Hill) — The Biden administration’s effort to distribute 400 million N95 masks for free dealt a blow to ailing American mask manufacturers that were just starting to see their sales recover during the recent omicron variant surge.
Small U.S. mask makers saw their N95 sales decline by around 70 percent to 80 percent following President Joe Biden’s mask announcement, potentially putting their operations at risk unless the federal government swiftly purchases more respirators, according to the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA), their trade group.
“We absolutely support that the Biden administration is helping get high-quality masks on people’s faces quickly, but there is an unintended consequence to that action and we’re hoping that it’s followed up with purchases based on President Biden’s Buy American order,” said Brent Dillie, the AMMA’s chairman and the commercial director of Virginia-based mask maker Premium-PPE.
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Most domestic mask makers launched at the onset of the pandemic to alleviate the nation’s mask shortage driven by China’s export restrictions.
When companies, health care providers, schools, and others were able to resume buying cheaper Chinese-made respirators — some of which failed to meet U.S. standards — demand for American-made masks plummeted, and U.S. manufacturers were forced to lay off thousands of workers.
Some firms have survived by selling N95 respirators to individual customers. Sales exploded over the past six weeks as Americans became increasingly aware that cloth masks are not nearly as effective at stopping the omicron variant. However, companies say that the recent Biden announcement undercut that short-lived revenue bump.
“I think we’re at a serious risk point that those manufacturers could largely disappear, and we would miss our opportunity to keep supply here of a critical national security item,” Dillie said.
The federal government will begin the distribution of N95 masks this week to counter sustained virus cases. They will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, which will have around 350 million respirators remaining.
To replenish the stockpile, the Biden administration plans to order hundreds of millions of additional masks from domestic companies — a key opportunity that U.S. mask manufacturers have been waiting for — but some small operators worry that they will lose out to the largest manufacturers that can meet the federal government’s daunting production demands.
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 wants to contract with domestic manufacturers that can produce 141 million N95 respirators per month.
“We are in the process of putting out an agreement for warm-base manufacturing so we’re able to keep this capacity that we currently have going even when demand diminishes,” she told lawmakers.
That’s the kind of long-term stability that American mask makers have been looking for.
They’re currently reluctant to ramp up their production without knowing whether demand will keep up, and that uncertainty has made it challenging 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 anywhere near that output. In a statement, 3M said that it has the capacity to manufacture approximately 100 million N95 respirators a month in its U.S. plants alone.
Those companies are not members of the AMMA, which represents smaller U.S. firms. In total, the trade association’s 30 member companies can produce 70 million N95 masks each month without increasing their current capacity and staffing levels.
“We will continue to assess the number of masks needed and replenish the stockpile accordingly — and as we do, we will continue to focus on domestically manufactured masks,” said HHS spokesperson Kirsten Allen.
The AMMA is still hopeful that it can come to a deal with the Biden administration. The group argues that providing contracts to smaller U.S. mask makers aligns with Biden’s goal of using procurement to boost small business, promoting competition, and buying American goods.
Mask makers also stress that Americans need reliable protection from the fast-spreading omicron variant.
They point to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report finding that 60 percent of Chinese-made KN95 masks failed to meet U.S. inspection requirements, making them less dependable than U.S. government-certified N95 respirators.
Anne Miller, executive director of nonprofit group Project N95, said that the CDC finding makes clear that securing a reliable supply of N95 respirators is a “national health priority.” She said that the federal, state and local governments should only order U.S.-made N95s and that the U.S. should impose penalties on importers that make false claims about the quality of their masks.
“As we know, we can expect future surges 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 national security policy,” Miller said. “This can be accomplished through a ‘carrot and stick’ approach of incentives for good masks and penalties for bad ones.”
American manufacturers have gotten a boost from lawmakers in both parties, who have consistently urged Biden to prioritize U.S.-made respirators. In a recent letter, Senate Democrats urged Biden to secure “long-term contracts for the purchase of masks made by American workers in the U.S. with U.S. materials.”
“We must not compromise the health of Americans by making purchases based mainly on lowest cost. Purchasing PPE made by American workers here in the U.S. supports domestic manufacturing and helps ensure a more reliable, consistent supply chain for these essential products,” the lawmakers, led by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), wrote in the letter.