Jan 19, 2022 - Economy

Biden’s face mask campaign to stress U.S. production capacity

A white mask has the words "sold out" written in red on it against a blue background.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

American mask manufacturers are getting whiplash, having gone from sleepy sector to mission-critical industry overnight — only to see sales collapse before now being suddenly in demand again.

Why it matters: As the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 rages, health experts now say Americans need legitimate N95 or KN95 masks to best protect themselves — not widely available fakes or less effective cloth masks.

  • But U.S. production of effective face masks cratered after demand plunged in summer 2021, leaving the country dependent on Chinese imports at a time when authentic masks are desperately needed, according to the American Mask Manufacturer's Association (AMMA).

Driving the news: The Biden administration today announced plans to distribute 400 million American-made N95 respirator masks to the public, drawing down more than half of the national stockpile.

  • "It’s an important first step to providing respiratory protection to all who want it," says Anne Miller, executive director of PPE nonprofit Project N95.

Yes, but: 400 million is barely enough for one per American, and there are few immediate options to make more in the U.S., AMMA founder Lloyd Armbrust tells Axios.

The big picture: The federal government's stockpile of N95s totaled about 737 million before the Biden announcement. Replenishing it with American-made masks will take time because U.S. producers shut down most of their manufacturing capacity after the nation’s vaccination campaign led to the suspension of mask mandates, temporarily sapping demand.

  • Annualized N95 production capacity among the members of the AMMA has fallen 47% from 1.1 billion in May to 584 million in January. About 20 of the group's 30-some members have ended production, Armbrust says.
  • “We laid off about 70% of our team,” says Armbrust, also CEO of Texas-based mask maker Armbrust. “Most of the manufacturers did the same.”

State of play: Giant manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell produce many of the legitimately made N95 masks sold in the U.S.

  • But most N95 production is located offshore, according to the AMMA, exposing the product to shipping delays. Some offshore sites have begun flying masks to the U.S. to get around port backlogs.

Meanwhile, the nation is being flooded with counterfeit N95s and KN95s that don't provide sufficient protection.

At the same time, cloth masks are readily available. But they provide less protection against omicron than previous variants, and most producers have exited the business.

  • Handmade goods seller Etsy's face mask sales totaled $133 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, but sales were “inconsequential” in the fourth quarter of 2021, CFO Rachel Glaser recently told investors.

What’s next: The Biden administration is currently seeking vendors capable of making 141 million N95 masks monthly “at a surge capacity,” Department of Health and Human Services official Dawn O’Connell told a Senate committee last week. Contracts are expected to be awarded in January or February, she testified.

  • “We already have supplied federal and state governments with hundreds of millions of N95s for stockpiles for this purpose, and we will replenish them as needed,” 3M spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich said in an email.
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