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U.S. Companies Shifted To Make N95 Respirators During COVID. Now, They're Struggling

Jun 25, 2021
Originally published on June 25, 2021 8:07 am

A year after several American businesses sprang up to manufacture much-needed masks and N95 respirators within U.S. borders, many of those businesses are now on the brink of financial collapse, shutting down production and laying off workers.

The nationwide vaccination campaign, combined with an influx of cheaper, Chinese-made masks and N95 respirators, has dramatically cut into the companies' sales and undermined their prices.

And while some call it a normal consequence of a free market, a few business owners say they feel abandoned by the same government that relied on them to help save American lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This is not only a matter of national security but of national pride," a group of them wrote last month in a letter to President Biden asking for government help.

Last year, dozens of companies like Armbrust American answered the nation's call for more domestic production of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Using its own resources and without government assistance, Armbrust purchased a facility near Austin, Texas, bought machinery, hired over a hundred workers, applied for a complicated and lengthy certification and started manufacturing.

"We started at the height of the pandemic really, in April, and very, very quickly, in about six months, we were able to scale up to producing about a million masks per day. And today we produce both surgical and N95-style masks," said Lloyd Armbrust, the founder and CEO.

Business was doing well, until the mass vaccination effort dramatically reduced demand for masks. Now, Armbrust predicts he can keep going for another four months at most, before completely shuttering the plant. "We are down to a skeleton crew on the alternate shifts and just barely a full crew on the main shift," he said.

At the beginning of this year, Armbrust and 27 other small-business mask manufacturers formed the American Mask Manufacturer's Association (AMMA).

"Let me put this in perspective: We have 28 members who are going to go out of business in the next 60 to 90 days, and when they go out of business, it's not like we turn off the lights and mothball these machines. We send them to the dump. That capacity that we created goes away," Armbrust said. Already five of the AMMA members have stopped production, he said.

Foreign dependency

These recent entrants into the mask-manufacturing industry are not the only companies cutting back on production, laying off workers and fighting for a share of a market long dominated by foreign-made products.

A worker at a Honeywell factory in Phoenix works on N95 respirators on May 5, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Before the pandemic began, about 10 American companies were actively making N95 respirators, according to Anne Miller, executive director of the nonprofit ProjectN95, a national clearinghouse for PPE founded in 2020. Larger companies such as Honeywell and 3M also manufactured N95s in factories abroad. All told, fewer than 10% of the N95 respirators used in the U.S. were manufactured domestically, according to industry experts.

In early 2020, China, the world's largest manufacturer of masks, was also fighting the pandemic and nationalized its manufacturing. The U.S. market, which depended mostly on masks from China, was essentially cut out.

"China, realizing that they have a crisis on their hands, restricted the export of all masks to the United States," said Robert Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University. So, while those companies were still producing, he says, they were forbidden by the Chinese government from shipping the masks to the United States.

To add to the problem, even U.S. companies such as Honeywell and 3M, which manufactured predominantly abroad, faced restrictions. "3M was unable to get shipments from its own factories in China back to the United States because the exports were being prevented by the Chinese government from leaving the country," Handfield said. The inability to get masks from abroad led to shortages domestically that put the U.S. in a precarious position.

The dependency on China and other foreign countries was nothing new, recalled Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, one of the oldest domestic manufacturers of masks in the United States.

In 2009, during the H1N1 pandemic, Prestige Ameritech stepped up production to meet the growing domestic need.

Before the pandemic, larger companies such as Honeywell and 3M manufactured N95 respirators in factories abroad. All told, fewer than 10% of the N95 respirators used in the U.S. were manufactured domestically, according to industry experts.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

"Last time we were stupid," Bowen said. "We believed everyone when they said they would stay with us. ... We're buying a factory, we're building more machines, we're hiring people, but you got to stay with us. And everybody said they would, but they didn't."

As soon as the health scare was over, the market dried up. The aftermath was harsh — laid-off workers, financial losses — but he survived.

This time, Bowen tried to be more careful.

"It's like people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have the cheapest prices — they want China prices — but then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can't get their Chinese products. That doesn't work," Bowen said. For comparison, one N95 respirator costs about 25 cents to manufacture in China. Producing the same product in the U.S. can cost more than double.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Bowen's company was slammed with new orders. His facility uses primarily domestically sourced raw materials, so he stepped up again. He ramped up production to meet the growing demand, adding more machines and increasing his labor force more than threefold.

Now, much cheaper masks from abroad have reentered the market yet again, as China has lifted export embargoes, competing directly against masks made in America. Bowen has six machines sitting idle in his factory.

"They want to have the cheapest prices — they want China prices — but then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can't get their Chinese products. That doesn't work," Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, told NPR.
Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Susanne Gerson is the executive vice president of the Louis M. Gerson Co. in Middleboro, Mass. Much like Bowen, Gerson has been in the business for years. "We've been in business for approximately 60 years, and we've been making N95 respirators since about 1985. So we're a very experienced respiratory manufacturer," she said.

When the pandemic started, Gerson said she started receiving calls personally from doctors in Massachusetts.

"I actually had people crying when I would talk to them on the phone that they didn't know what to do — women doctors who were pregnant and they weren't being provided any protection," she said.

The company made a decision to reconfigure its business from making masks for industrial workers to making masks for health care workers, doubling the workforce on the floor and modifying the facility.

"I think people outside of manufacturing don't understand what it takes to produce a product where we're the most critical part of this whole process and yet we're the most ignored," she said.

"We have not had to lay off people, but if things don't clear up in the pipeline and we don't get some of this confusion addressed, we don't know what's going to happen," she added.

Gerson, like Bowen and others, is calling on the Biden administration to stop the influx of Chinese products.

"We ramped up our capacity to such a level based on what we thought were commitments from new customers and people saying, 'No, we're going to need product,' and being told this by the government and by everyone. And then it's just like, poof, they're not sure," she said.

A New England Patriots jet arrives at Boston Logan International Airport on April 1, 2020, with a massive shipment of N95 respirators from China to be used in Boston and New York. When the pandemic started, Susanne Gerson, executive vice president of a mask manufacturer in Massachusetts, said she began receiving calls personally from doctors in the state looking for personal protective equipment.
Jim Davis / Boston Globe via Getty Images

Gerson is also calling for more clarity around the emergency use authorization that allowed for the reuse of masks, a response to severe shortages that no longer exist.

"We are required to put that on our packaging by the FDA when we make a respirator — that it's a single-use product. And yet my understanding is they are still being used ... oftentimes I think what the hospital is doing is they're putting the other mask over the N95 as a way of trying to keep it clean. But it wasn't designed like that," she said.

Larger manufacturers have faced consequences from the shifting market as well.

Honeywell recently announced that it is shutting down production of N95 respirators at two facilities, in Smithfield, R.I., and Phoenix, laying off more than 1,000 workers. But the company says it has made permanent changes to its structure that would allow for a faster ramp-up next time there is a need. "While we have closed some of our manual operations efforts at two facilities, we are maintaining the automated lines to continue to fulfill orders and can ramp back up as needed," said Honeywell company spokesperson Eric Krantz.

Asking for change

The foreign-dependence vulnerability is something both the White House and members of Congress are well aware of.

Rep. Anna Eshoo has represented California's 18th Congressional District, near San Jose, for nearly three decades. She also chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health, speaks to the media following a hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2020.
Greg Nash / The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"Shame on us that we found ourselves in the position that we were in, especially at the height of the pandemic and the risk that our health care workers had to take and did take," said Eshoo, a Democrat who has often spoken against foreign dependence on commodities, such as PPE and pharmaceuticals, and lack of domestic manufacturing.

"This is a warped picture of America," she said. "We can do so much better."

The White House says it is working on a strategy for a more resilient pandemic supply chain. And recent legislation signed by the president included $10 billion for investments in additional manufacturing capacity, extended contracts for PPE and more.

Armbrust, like other members of the AMMA, said he knew he took a risk.

"I made a stupid decision, because I'm an entrepreneur and I cared about our country and bringing this strategic manufacturing back," he said. "A bunch of people made bad decisions personally to do something that was right at the time, and that to me is the American spirit."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Chronic shortages of personal protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks left hospitals scrambling last year. The problem dominated the headlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Health care workers across the globe are pleading for personal protective equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Front-line health care workers are still experiencing shortages of safety gear known as PPE about...

MARTIN: Domestic manufacturers then stepped in to fill the gap. Now those companies are facing financial troubles, possible bankruptcies and layoffs as cheap, Chinese-made masks flood the U.S. market yet again. NPR's Monika Evstatieva reports.

MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: When essential workers found their supply of N95 respirators shrinking, Armbrust America (ph) was one of the companies that answered the call.

LLOYD ARMBRUST: So we started at the height of the pandemic, really, in April. And very, very quickly in about six months, we were able to scale up to producing about a million masks per day.

EVSTATIEVA: That's Lloyd Armbrust, the founder and CEO of the company. Using his own resources, he purchased the facility, bought machinery hired over a hundred workers applied for a complicated and lengthy certification and started manufacturing.

ARMBRUST: We did, I think, over a million dollars in sales in the first 10 days.

EVSTATIEVA: Business was doing well until a mass vaccination effort dramatically reduced demand for masks.

ARMBRUST: We're down to a skeleton crew on the alternate shifts and just barely a full crew on the main shift.

EVSTATIEVA: And he's not alone. Armbrust and 27 other small businesses that had started up during the pandemic joined forces and formed the American Mask Manufacturer's Association. Now they're all struggling.

ARMBRUST: We have 28 members who are going to go out of business in the next 60 to 90 days. And when they go out of business, it's not like we turn off the lights and mothball these machines. We send them to the dump.

EVSTATIEVA: One of the main reasons for the slump in business - global competition. Before the pandemic, less than 10% N95 respirators were made here in the U.S.

ROBERT HANDFIELD: The N95 market prior to COVID - there were just a few domestic manufacturers, very small ones for the most part.

EVSTATIEVA: Robert Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University, says even the biggest U.S. mask companies were making most of their products abroad.

HANDFIELD: So they had outsourced it to lower-cost manufacturers in China that were producing the masks and then putting the 3M or Honeywell label on it.

EVSTATIEVA: The biggest buyers of masks in the U.S. before COVID-19 were the distribution companies that supply hospitals. When the pandemic hit, China, overwhelmed with its own response, shut down exports entirely, leaving American companies in the lurch.

HANDFIELD: 3M is unable to get shipments from its own factories in China back to the United States because the exports are being prevented by the Chinese government from leaving the country.

EVSTATIEVA: Fast forward to today. Chinese masks are back on the market, and they're much cheaper to make. Producing the same products here in the U.S. costs more than double. So there is little motivation for hospitals to purchase more expensive U.S. masks.

MIKE BOWEN: It's like a crack cocaine addiction. They are addicted to foreign prices, even when they're not real.

EVSTATIEVA: Mike Bowen of Prestige Ameritech has been through this before. He's one of the oldest domestic mass manufacturers in the U.S. In 2009, during the H1N1 pandemic, he stepped up production to meet the growing domestic needs. But the aftermath was harsh - laid-off workers, financial losses. This time around, not much has changed. Bowen has six idle machines in his factory.

BOWEN: It's like people want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want China prices. But then they want American manufacturers to bail them out when they can't get their Chinese products. That doesn't work.

EVSTATIEVA: Bowen and the small manufacturers are asking the White House to ban foreign imports of masks and keep competition to U.S. companies. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo agrees. For years, she has warned against foreign dependence on commodities such as PPE and pharmaceuticals.

ANNA ESHOO: If the market is eaten away at by dumping of a foreign country - in this case, China - they don't stand any chance. And so it's lopsided.

EVSTATIEVA: Plus, many of the cheap masks are counterfeit, she says. And Chinese companies don't have to abide by much stricter U.S. quality controls.

ESHOO: It's not just that they're pennies on a dollar. It's an inferior product.

EVSTATIEVA: The White House says they're working on a strategy for a more resilient pandemic supply chain. Ten billion dollars were allocated for the Defense Production Act for PPE and other medical gear earlier this year. And a White House official says they're working to provide access to grants and funding for the newly formed small businesses struggling to survive. It is unclear if manufacturers like Lloyd Armbrust will get any funding in time. But he knows he took a risk when he started his business.

ARMBRUST: There are 27 other member companies that did the same thing. A bunch of people made bad decisions personally to do something that was right at the time.

EVSTATIEVA: And that, Armbrust says, is the American spirit. Monika Evstatieva, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.