The federal government turned down an offer that would have allowed the United States to significantly ramp up domestic mask production in the earliest stages of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by the Washington Post. The decision later forced the Trump administration to turn to expensive, untested third-party distributors and to use the Defense Production Act to compel companies to increase output.
It’s unclear exactly why top officials turned down the offer, but the decision to do so continues to have consequences for the many frontline workers who still lack the necessary equipment to protect themselves on the job.
The Post reports Mike Bowen, owner of the largest surgical face mask producer in the US — Prestige Ameritech in Texas — contacted top officials in the Department of Health and Human Services on January 22, the day after the first US coronavirus cases were identified.
His pitch: Provide the funds needed to dust off four dormant manufacturing lines, and his firm would produce 1.7 million N95 masks every week. According to Bowen, he’d been raising the alarm for years that the US was too dependent on foreign countries (where nearly 90 percent of masks used in the country come from) for production, and argued his manufacturing lines offered both a way around that, and to ensure the US would have the masks it needed.
Rick Bright — the former director of HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (who was ousted in April, and later filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was demoted for fighting for science-based preparations “over political expediency”) — pushed top HHS officials to accept Bowen’s offer, to no avail. Prestige Ameritech later exported a million masks to China.
Officials gave the Post a variety of reasons why the Trump administration did not restart Prestige Ameritech’s lines. Some officials claimed it was because HHS didn’t have enough money at the time to pay for increased production; another blamed the lethargic pace of government contracts. White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, on the other hand, said that “the company was just extremely difficult to work and communicate with.”
“This was in sharp contrast to groups like the National Council of Textile Organizations and companies like Honeywell and Parkdale Mills, which have helped America very rapidly build up cost effective domestic mask capacity measuring in the hundreds of millions,” Navarro told the Post.
The federal government went on to spend more than $600 million on contracts including mask production. Honeywell and 3M were given contracts worth more than $170 million to produce protective gear. And a tactical training company with no history of producing medical equipment was given $55 million to make N95 masks for $5.50 each — a price around seven to nine times greater than other suppliers, including Bowen’s company. Prestige Ameritech was eventually given a $9.5 million contract in early April to produce N95 masks for 79 cents each.
Bowen’s manufacturing lines, which could be making more than 7 million masks every month, remain unused.
A shortage of personal protection equipment has dogged the nation’s coronavirus response
Revelations of Bowen’s offer come as US health care workers, grocery store employees, and other frontline workers have struggled for two months to secure the personal protection equipment (PPE) — including masks, gloves, face shields, and more — necessary to stay safe on the job.
As health care providers and employers have desperately sought to buy PPE at skyrocketing costs, it’s become more and more clear that no country, including the US, was prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude. The surge in demand couldn’t quickly be met by stores in the US’s Strategic National Stockpile, and companies that traditionally make equipment were inundated with requests from around the globe.
Vox’s German Lopez explained the issue this way:
The problem is about both supply and demand. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, China made half the world’s face masks. When the outbreak took off there, China started to use its supply and hoard what remained. This problem has only spread since, as more and more countries hoard whatever medical supplies they can get — with some, like Germany, even banning most PPE exports. So as demand increased due to Covid-19 — not just from health care workers but from a general public increasingly scared of infection — there was less supply to go around.
Health care workers were forced to use disposable equipment multiple times, making them more vulnerable to infection and threatening hospitals’ ability to care for an influx of patients when they need it most.
Workers in grocery stores, big box stores, and delivery services have also been put in harm’s way, having to show up to work and interact regularly with the public, oftentimes without adequate protection, as Vox’s Emily Stewart has explained.
A survey conducted by the University of California Berkeley and UC San Francisco between March 7 and April 9 found that only 19 percent of essential workers at companies such as Walmart, McDonald’s, Costco, Amazon, UPS, and Walgreens were given masks, while 56 percent said their employer made gloves available. In the weeks since the survey was taken, companies may have implemented more protective rules, though guidelines often vary by state.
Despite clear delays in preparing to protect frontline workers from the virus, there are still ways the country can catch up.
As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has argued, the government could use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to issue loans and purchase guarantees to companies, helping them expand production while giving them a measure of comfort in hiring more workers at an uncertain economic moment.
The DPA could also be used to loosen restrictions on regulation and inspection to speed up production without liability in the face of the emergency. In the meantime, after years of poor preparation, the rejection of Prestige Ameritech’s offer, and weeks of delivery and acquisition delays, many frontline workers must continue to make do with inadequate — and even dangerous — levels of PPE.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.