Governments and Companies Race to Make Masks Vital to Virus Fight

Governments and Companies Race to Make Masks Vital to Virus Fight

President Trump resists using emergency powers to compel production, saying companies will voluntarily provide much-needed protective gear.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

President Trump on Saturday sought to assure an anxious American public that help was on the way to overwhelmed hospitals, and that private companies had agreed to provide desperately needed medical supplies to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus.

But Mr. Trump resisted appeals from state and local officials and hospital administrators for more aggressive action, saying he would not compel companies to make face masks and other gear to protect front-line health workers from the virus.

Speaking at a White House briefing with Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence said the federal government had placed orders for “hundreds of millions” of the N-95 face masks that can shield medical workers from the virus. Mr. Trump said the clothing company Hanes was among those that had been enlisted to start churning out masks, although the company said they would not be the N-95 masks that are most effective in protecting medical workers.

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pence would say when the masks would be ready. And it is unclear whether enough new masks and other protective gear will be available before health care facilities start getting overwhelmed by a flood of infected patients. More than 21,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States, and that number is expected to soar in coming weeks.

As more of the nation goes into an unprecedented lockdown — businesses shuttered, one in four Americans urged to stay in their homes, layoffs soaring — experts expect the United States economy to shrink at a quick pace in the first half of this year.

Seeking to cushion that blow, lawmakers and Trump administration officials were holding weekend negotiations over an economic-stabilization package with a price tag of more than $1 trillion. Resolving one of the major remaining sticking points in the legislation, Democrats and Republicans appeared to be nearing an agreement to send cash payments to Americans.

Federal officials also continued to scramble to make it easier for people to get tested for the coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration said on Saturday that it would permit a Silicon Valley company, Cepheid, to start selling a diagnostic test that could determine in about 45 minutes whether a patient has the virus that causes Covid-19.

The company’s chief medical officer, David Persing, said the new tests were likely to hit the market late in the coming week. He did not say how many would be available or at what cost.

The lack of widespread access to tests has provoked a weekslong outcry nationwide.

But as tests have become more readily available, the supplies of masks and other protective gear needed for those administering the tests have been running low. In other words, a shortage of masks has become a bottleneck slowing the rollout of testing, which experts say is crucial to containing the virus.

In the past two days, health officials in New York, California and elsewhere have started discouraging people from taking the tests if they are only mildly ill.

“We had a chance at mass testing at an early stage, but we blew it as a country,” said Mark Levine, a New York City Council member who leads the health committee. “Now testing mildly sick people poses an enormous threat. They should be at home resting, not waiting in line at a testing site.”

Doctors and hospital administrators have been warning for weeks that they face acute shortages of masks and lifesaving equipment such as ventilators. State and local officials in New York and elsewhere have been pleading for help from Washington and industry.

Mr. Trump on Saturday continued to resist calls to use the Defense Production Act, a Korean War era law that empowers the federal government to exert control over the private sector to meet national defense needs and ensure that supplies get to where they are most needed, regardless of the business plans of the companies involved.

Mr. Trump said that his inclination was not to interfere with market forces. And because companies were voluntarily heeding his calls to action, he said it was unnecessary to invoke the act.

The manufacturing company 3M has said it is sharply increasing its production of N-95 masks, which filter small particles and droplets from the air. The company plans to increase its production in the United States, where it makes about 400 million masks a year, by more than 30 percent over the next year. Honeywell said it had more than doubled its production of N-95 masks in recent months.

And Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, said on Saturday that the company planned to donate millions of face masks in the United States and Europe.

But executives in the medical supply industry said that while they are rushing to accelerate their output of face masks, it could take months to ramp up.

Traditional surgical masks can prevent sick people from spreading the virus, but they do not protect healthy people from becoming infected. Doctors treating infected patients need the special N-95 masks, which can filter out the virus.

There have been scattered signs of progress at addressing the mask shortage. At a news conference on Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said the state was purchasing 2 million N-95 masks from American and foreign companies. He said the state was paying a rich price for the coveted masks: $4 apiece for products that normally go for 80 cents.

“It’s price-gouging, but we need them,” Mr. Cuomo said. “And most of these are coming from overseas.”

Matt Hall, a spokesman for Hanes, said Trump administration officials called the company about a week ago to see if Hanes could start making face masks. Hanes and a group of other yarn and clothing companies agreed to make up to 6 million masks a week, he said.

But Hanes is not making the most-sought-after N-95 masks. “They are masks that would be helpful to prevent somebody from sneezing and coughing from spreading any kind of germs that they might have,” Mr. Hall said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration approved a prototype that can be used if N-95s were not available.

Mr. Hall said that Hanes was currently negotiating a contract with the U.S. government to supply the masks at market rates.

Executives at Parkdale Mills, a company in Gastonia, N.C., that provides yarn to Hanes, received a call a few days ago from Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser. He wanted to know if the company could make masks.

“He said, ‘I need a Manhattan Project,’” said Anderson Warlick, the chairman and chief executive of Parkdale Mills. The company is part of the consortium with Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and several others.

But other companies are struggling to quickly expand their mask-making capacities, in part because of broken overseas supply chains and some countries’ restrictions on exporting protective gear during the crisis.

“We have calls from doctors and hospitals that are calling us directly asking if we could ship them masks to their houses in desperation, because the masks are being stolen from the hospitals,” said Ronald Reuben, the chief executive of Medicom, a Canadian company that is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of N-95 and other medical face masks.

Medicom has factories all over the world, including in China, which has barred the company from taking its masks out of the country, Mr. Reuben said. But it only makes N-95 masks in France, where the government has taken over factories that produce essential medical supplies. Mr. Reuben said there is no way to get those N-95 masks to the United States.

Industry officials have been warning for years about the perils of relying on foreign supply chains for essential medical supplies.

Mike Bowen, whose company, Prestige Ameritech, makes masks in a factory in North Richland Hills, Tex., said that he told officials in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations that about 95 percent of surgical masks are manufactured outside the United States, including by American companies that moved factories overseas to reduce costs. Mr. Bowen said he had repeatedly told federal officials that American hospitals would be at the mercy of other countries in a pandemic.

“Aside from sitting in front of the White House and lighting myself on fire, I feel like I’ve done everything I can,” Mr. Bowen said. Recently, Mr. Bowen said, his company has been fielding roughly 100 calls a day from hospitals and others desperate for more masks.

Other American companies are finding their supply chains frozen.

In its factory in Charlotte, N.C., Strong Manufacturers has three L-shaped machines that are set up to churn out about 70 masks a minute, or roughly 9 million a month.

But the company sourced the raw materials for the masks from a supplier in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak started. Now, the goods aren’t coming.

“Our materials were ready to ship from Wuhan, and they got hung up on the dock as soon as this started,” said Alan Bagliore, the chief executive of Strong Manufacturers. He said orders from other suppliers aren’t expected to arrive for up to four weeks.

Companies and individuals with no experience making masks are trying to fill the void.

Lauren Streicher, a surgeon in Chicago, has started using her home sewing machine to make cloth masks out of elastic bands, wire and material donated by a local fabric store. She said she could produce one every five minutes. On Saturday, she posted an instructional video on YouTube so others could do the same. “They don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “This is about making something practical, quick and functional. Oh, and they’re washable.”

In Los Angeles, Dov Charney, the founder of Los Angeles Apparel and former chief executive of American Apparel, in recent weeks devoted the majority of his 150,000-square-foot factory to manufacturing surgical masks and hospital gowns. The company started selling and shipping masks in mid-March; it is ultimately hoping to produce 300,000 masks and 50,000 gowns a week.

In New York, the designer Christian Siriano has told his 10 seamstresses to begin making masks with the goal of producing a few thousand a week.

And in Virginia, the swimwear company Karla Colletto plans on reopening its factory in the coming days to help combat the shortage of face masks.

Mr. Charney, Mr. Siriano and Karla Colletto are not making N-95 masks.

Jean Liu, the chief executive of Litex Industries, an outdoor furniture manufacturer in Texas, said that a relative who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston described dousing her N-95 mask with alcohol each day to prolong its life. “I thought, ‘I own a factory I ought to be able to do something,’” Ms. Liu said.

In recent days, one of the company’s plants in Michigan has begun using its fabric-cutting equipment to churn out surgical masks with material donated by textile companies in the Carolinas. The goal is to be able to quickly make 1,000 a day.

Many doctors and nurses said they don’t have weeks or months to spare.

In a letter to staff on Friday, Craig R. Smith, the chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said the New York-Presbyterian system, of which his hospital is part, normally uses 4,000 N-95 masks a day. The system is currently using 40,000 masks a day and estimates it will soon need 70,000 a day, he wrote.

Mr. Smith said that the hospital system had “successfully pried” 150,000 masks out of the United States strategic reserve, but that would last only a few days at the peak of the pandemic.

Mr. Trump said on Saturday that masks don’t always need to be thrown away after a single use, but instead can be sanitized. Hospitals and doctors have begun to try.

“We are making the best of bad choices,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, the chief of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which recently decided it had no choice but to try reusing masks decontaminated with ultraviolet light.

It’s not just masks. Ventilators are in short supply. And hospitals, running out of space, are cramming infected patients into tight quarters.

Lillian Udell, 31, a nurse at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, said she contracted coronavirus after having to interact with a patient through a curtain because of a shortage of isolation rooms. It didn’t help that she has been wearing a mask that doesn’t fit her narrow face.

“It’s a charade, practically, to say that we are isolating patients and going through these protocols when really we are putting them behind a fabric curtain and running short of masks or wearing masks that don’t fit us,” Ms. Udell said.

“I am just really angry.”

Jessica Testa, Katie Rogers, Emily Cochrane, Jesse McKinley, James Gorman, Sheila Kaplan, Tim Arango, Sheri Fink and Mike Baker contributed reporting.

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