More companies are trying to get into the mask-making business, as hospitals and public officials scrounge for protective gear for medical workers confronting the coronavirus pandemic.
A Texas businessman, a company that makes pee pads for pets in Virginia and a longtime medical-supply executive in New York are all buying machines or retooling production lines to make medical-grade face masks. However, the new entrants are facing the same problem as established mask makers: shortages of key supplies and equipment.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t recommending the general public wear face masks if they are healthy, saying the supply should be preserved for health-care workers. The widening U.S. outbreak is quickly burning through limited remaining supplies at many hospitals, and government backstops aren’t keeping pace, health-care officials have said.
has doubled production of N95 face masks and is now producing 1.1 billion a year, including 400 million in the U.S.
“We are seeing a dramatic increase in production,” Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday. N95 masks, which filter out 95% of tiny particles, are best able to prevent a wearer from getting infected. Surgical masks, which are simpler and cheaper, are typically worn to stop a wearer from spreading diseases. Both types of masks are in high demand by health-care workers.
N95 masks typically sell for less than $1 apiece to hospitals, though prices on the open market have risen due to the shortage.
Smaller companies want to ramp up production, too. Nelson Laboratories, a Salt Lake City-based company that performs quality tests on masks, has added weekend hours to meet a fourfold increase in demand from newcomers to the business.
“We are seeing tons of new customers that are trying to fill in the gaps,” said Sarah Smit, an operations manager at Nelson Laboratories. Hampton, Va.-based Registrar Corp., which helps manufacturers navigate U.S. health-care rules, is also handling a jump in new business, President David Lennarz said.
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The Department of Health and Human Services has said it wants to buy 500 million more face masks over the next 18 months, part of an effort to spur companies to make more masks domestically. Production of masks and other medical supplies shifted largely to China in recent years, where officials have commandeered output to fight the virus that first appeared there late last year.
“It’s not enough to just stockpile. It’s very important to have your own local production,” said Ronald Reuben, chief executive of Montreal-based Medicom Group, which has boosted production of masks across its facilities in China, France and the state of Georgia.
Some critical components in high-quality masks, such as nonwoven polypropylene, a dense network of fibers that serves as the primary filtering material, remain in short supply.
Jeffrey Lumen, sales manager at a lighting manufacturer that wants to start making masks, said more than one material supplier told him that he was too late to secure a steady flow of nonwoven polypropylene. He thinks he will be able to secure enough supply to get started in a few months.
His company, Alhambra, Calif.-based Lumensource LLC, applied for a $500,000 loan to start mask production and placed an order for a mask-making machine. He is unsure when it will arrive.
“We kind of have to wait in line,” Mr. Lumen said. “There is a lot of people asking for it.”
Taiwan-based NCM Nonwoven Converting Machinery Co. said the machines it makes to cut and meld filters into masks are on back-order for at least six months. A representative for TRM-Top Rank Machinery Inc., another Taiwan-based maker of mask-production machines, said new orders won’t be filled for at least 90 days.
Michael Hubbard was able to order one machine for his mask-making startup, but only after prices shot up. Equipment that normally sells for $30,000 now goes for $100,000, he said.
The manufacturing executive came up with the idea for a mask-making plant in February after hearing about shortages of medical gear in Asia. He said he and several partners will spend up to $3 million to start Texas Mask Inc. His mask-making machine is due to arrive at his newly leased cleanroom in North Texas next week after being air-shipped from China.
“When you have these kinds of events there ought to be some opportunities that don’t normally exist,” he said.
U-Play USA LLC, which makes pee pads for cats and dogs at its Virginia Beach, Va., factory, wants to start making masks, too. Chief Executive BQ Yan said the company, a division of Chinese company U-Play Corp., wants to bring in two technicians from China to help get its mask line running. That could be complicated by an entry ban on non-U.S.-citizens who have traveled to China.
“We can do the production line in one week,” Mr. Yan said.
Strong Manufacturers, which is based in Buffalo, N.Y., was already planning to start producing masks in the U.S. because of trade tensions between Beijing and Washington that had made some of those imports from China more expensive.
The company has three mask-making machines in Charlotte, N.C. But raw materials it had ordered from Wuhan, a major manufacturing center that was also the center of the outbreak in China, got stuck there earlier this year as the region shut down to contain the disease.
“We are searching all over this globe for the materials,” Strong Manufacturers Chief Executive Alan Bagliore said.
Strong Manufacturers plans to make up to nine million masks a month in North Carolina as soon as it finds supplies of nonwoven polypropylene and other materials. Until then, its mask-making equipment is sitting idle.
“We are scrambling to get raw materials in the states,” said Charles Fatora, the company’s head of global procurement. “I could turn the machines on and stare at them.”
Locations ordered by date of first reported infection.
Cumulative daily reported infections
*Cruise ship docked in Japan
Note: Data begins when Johns Hopkins and WHO began publishing daily global case numbers. China first reported a pneumonia cluster in Wuhan in early December 2019.
Sources: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science