So far, production capacity is keeping up with domestic demand for masks, though not for nitrile gloves or surgical gowns. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that in May, U.S. manufacturers produced N95s in excess of demand and almost met the need for surgical masks. But factory closures could tip the scales back to shortages.
There are significant reserves of PPE in the Strategic National Stockpile, and the federal government, states, and hospitals have other reserves to supplement it. However, those supplies will expire, and if manufacturers in the U.S. close up shop, the main sources will be abroad once again. Larger manufacturers such as 3M Co. and Honeywell International Inc. could retool their production lines quickly to make masks if needed. But smaller companies produce more U.S.-made masks, according to the AMMA, which is sitting on a pile of 300 million surgical masks and 20 million N95s that it can’t sell.
PPE manufacturers need committed purchasing from both the federal government and health systems to “create a sustainable supply chain for the future,” says Soumi Saha, vice president for advocacy at hospital supply purchasing group Premier Inc. Premier and 15 health systems have invested in one Texas-based manufacturer, Prestige Ameritech, agreeing to buy 20% of the company’s mask inventory over the next five years. Such contracts could be what keeps U.S. mask production going.
Hospitals have been reluctant to switch from mask suppliers overseas primarily because of the higher price of domestically made masks—they typically cost about 30% more, Saha says.