How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask

  
Via:  Nerm_L  •  6 months ago  •  25 comments

By:    Farhad Manjoo -- The New York Times (published on MSNBC)

How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask
What a small, shameful way for a strong nation to falter: For want of a 75-cent face mask, the kingdom was lost.

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Almost overnight the United States discovered, too late, that the country depends upon manufacturing.  The United States suddenly needs those jobs that are never coming back.


S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



Why is the United States running out of face masks for medical workers? How does the world’s wealthiest country find itself in such a tragic and avoidable mess? And how long will it take to get enough protective gear, if that’s even possible now?

I’ve spent the last few days digging into these questions, because the shortages of protective gear, particularly face masks, has struck me as one of the more disturbing absurdities in America’s response to this pandemic.

Yes, it would have been nice to have had early, widespread testing for the coronavirus, the strategy South Korea used to contain its outbreak. It would be amazing if we can avoid running out of ventilators and hospital space, the catastrophe that has befallen parts of Italy. But neither matters much — in fact, no significant intervention is possible — if health care workers cannot even come into contact with coronavirus patients without getting sick themselves.

That’s where cheap, disposable face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns come in. That we failed to procure enough safety gear for medical workers — not to mention for sick people and for the public, as some health experts might have recommended if masks were not in such low supply — seems astoundingly negligent.

What a small, shameful way for a strong nation to falter: For want of a 75-cent face mask, the kingdom was lost.

I am sorry to say that digging into the mask shortage does little to assuage one’s sense of outrage. The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.

Perhaps the only way to address the shortfall now is to recognize that the market is broken, and to have the government step in to immediately spur global and domestic production. President Trump, bizarrely, has so far resisted ordering companies to produce more supplies and equipment. In the case of masks, manufacturers say they are moving mountains to ramp up production, and some large companies are donating millions of masks from their own reserves.

But given the vast global need for masks — in the United States alone, fighting the coronavirus will consume 3.5 billion face masks, according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services — corporate generosity will fall short. People in the mask business say it will take a few months, at a minimum, to significantly expand production.

“We are at full capacity today, and increased production by building another factory or extending further will take anywhere between three to four months,” said Guillaume Laverdure, the chief operating officer of Medicom, a Canadian company that makes masks and other protective equipment in factories around the world.

And though some nontraditional manufacturers like T-shirt factories and other apparel makers have announced plans to rush-produce masks, it’s unclear that they will be able to meet required safety standards or shift over production in time to answer demand.

Few in the protective equipment industry are surprised by the shortages, because they’ve been predicted for years. In 2005, the George W. Bush administration called for the coordination of domestic production and stockpiling of protective gear in preparation for pandemic influenza. In 2006, Congress approved funds to add protective gear to a national strategic stockpile — among other things, the stockpile collected 52 million surgical face masks and 104 million N95 respirator masks.

But about 100 million masks in the stockpile were deployed in 2009 in the fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic, and the government never bothered to replace them. This month, Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, testified that there are only about 40 million masks in the stockpile — around 1 percent of the projected national need.

As the coronavirus began to spread in China early this year, a global shortage of protective equipment began to look inevitable. But by then it was too late for the American government to do much about the problem. Two decades ago, most hospital protective gear was made domestically. But like much of the rest of the apparel and consumer products business, face mask manufacturing has since shifted nearly entirely overseas. “China is a producer of 80 percent of masks worldwide,” Laverdure said.

Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper — because their “just-in-time” supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency.

“You’re talking about a commodity item,” said Michael J. Alkire, president of Premier, a company that purchases medical supplies for hospitals and health systems. In the supply chain, he said, “by definition, there’s not going to be a lot of redundancy, because everyone wants the low cost.”

In January, the brittle supply chain began to crack under pressure. To deal with its own outbreak, China began to restrict exports of protective equipment. Then other countries did as well — Taiwan, Germany, France and India took steps to stop exports of medical equipment. That left American hospitals to seek more and more masks from fewer and fewer producers.

People in the industry assured me they would prepare better next time. “We are laserlike focused to ensure that our health care systems are never in this scenario again,” Alkire told me. “There will be a lot more domestic manufacturing of these products going forward.”

I don’t doubt it — but that we did not plan, as a nation, for this entirely predictable shortage makes me wonder what other inevitable pothole is lurking out there for all to trip over. Getting enough protective gear was among the cheapest, most effective things we could have done to slow down the pandemic. That we failed on such an obvious thing reveals an alarming national incapacity to imagine and prepare for the worst.

We will get enough masks in time for the next disaster. But wouldn’t it be nice, for once, if we prepared for trouble before it hit us in the face?


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Nerm_L
1  seeder  Nerm_L    6 months ago

There isn't going to be 3.5 billion face masks and respirators.  There isn't going to be 30,000 ventilators for New York.  Demanding that the President fix 50 years of short sighted greed in a matter of weeks is lunacy.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.  How's that 401k doing?

 
 
 
r.t..b...
1.1  r.t..b...  replied to  Nerm_L @1    6 months ago
There isn't going to be 30,000 ventilators for New York.

There weren't hundreds of B-17's coming off the assembly line every week in WWII until the government made it a priority. And it had nothing to do with shortsightedness but it became a reality because of the need and the willingness of the federal government to address that need.

We could most certainly deliver 30,000 ventilators in a relatively short time, if not for the lack of leadership and a cohesive strategy. As is stands, our state governors are in competition with one another over acquiring limited resources...and as encouraged by the head of state...despicable does not begin to describe how utterly wrong that is.

 
 
 
Nerm_L
1.1.1  seeder  Nerm_L  replied to  r.t..b... @1.1    6 months ago
There weren't hundreds of B-17's coming off the assembly line every week in WWII until the government made it a priority. And it had nothing to do with shortsightedness but it became a reality because of the need and the willingness of the federal government to address that need.

But we did have a manufacturing base that could be converted to producing B-17s.  You do realize that the United States was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and didn't fight the first offensive battle on Guadalcanal until Aug., 1942.  And we didn't land in Europe until June 6, 1944.

We didn't have hundreds of B-17s coming off assembly lines until the last year of the war.  The first year we had to use what we had.

We could most certainly deliver 30,000 ventilators in a relatively short time, if not for lack of leadership and petty partisanship. As is stands, our state governors are in competition with one another over acquiring resources...and as encouraged by the head of state...despicable does not begin to describe how utterly wrong that is.

Really?  Where are the electronic components, display screens, motors, fittings, and screws going to come from?  China?  South Korea?  Japan?  The Philippines?  Vietnam?  Mexico?  We can't even manufacture enough smart phones to supply the country under normal conditions.  We can't even supply the demand for automobiles with domestic manufacturing under normal conditions.  Auto assembly plants can't be transformed into manufacturing plants overnight.

Prioritizing magical thinking won't change reality.

 
 
 
CB
1.1.3  CB   replied to    6 months ago

How did Obama do it to the masks?  Please help me understand. Because I am getting a mental visually of Obama 'lighting em up' or having a series of hellacious parties. And, that can't be right. Where was the press about it?

 
 
 
zuksam
1.1.4  zuksam  replied to  r.t..b... @1.1    6 months ago

There is no reason for Trump to use his power to force companies to do what they have already agreed to do, it's just going to take some time. Companies are hard at work trying to increase production and there's nothing anyone can do but wait. I think the hospitals need to stop being so wasteful, it doesn't make sense to use a new mask for every patient if they're still wearing the same shirt and pants.

 
 
 
Nerm_L
1.1.5  seeder  Nerm_L  replied to  CB @1.1.3    6 months ago
How did Obama do it to the masks?  Please help me understand. Because I am getting a mental visually of Obama 'lighting em up' or having a series of hellacious parties. And, that can't be right. Where was the press about it?

According to information in the article, the Federal government maintained a stockpile of 140 million masks.  100 million masks were distributed from that stockpile in 2009 (Obama's first year in office) to address the H1N1 epidemic in the US.  Those masks weren't replaced in the stockpile.

The Federal stockpile of masks has been depleted since 2009 and were not replenished during the two terms of Obama's presidency.  

 
 
 
Dulay
1.1.6  Dulay  replied to  Nerm_L @1.1.5    6 months ago
Those masks weren't replaced in the stockpile.

According to the CDC the decision was made to stockpile in local, state AND federal facilities so the 40 million in the SNS are no longer the ONLY stockpiles. 

All of this would MEAN something IF the SNS supply of PPE has been emptied out. It hasn't. Trump's HHS has been SLOW in dispersing supplies. 

 
 
 
Nerm_L
1.1.7  seeder  Nerm_L  replied to  Dulay @1.1.6    6 months ago
According to the CDC the decision was made to stockpile in local, state AND federal facilities so the 40 million in the SNS are no longer the ONLY stockpiles.  All of this would MEAN something IF the SNS supply of PPE has been emptied out. It hasn't. Trump's HHS has been SLOW in dispersing supplies. 

It's necessary to manage dispersal.  New Orleans is becoming the next hotspot.  If HHS had provided New York the total supply in the stockpile then there would be nothing for New Orleans.  HHS has a responsibility to the country; not just to New York.

There is a difference between slow release from the stockpile and managed release from the stockpile.  Based upon the claim that policy was changed so that local, and state facilities were to maintain a stockpile then obviously New York didn't adequately comply with that policy change.

And the people fleeing New York will inevitably create hotspots elsewhere in the country over time.  The failure of the populace to adopt common sense behaviors will prolong the epidemic.  New York passing it's peak won't be the end of the pandemic for the country.

 
 
 
CB
1.1.8  CB   replied to  Nerm_L @1.1.5    6 months ago

Okay, so since SOMEBODY (I wonder who) is looking to make a faux case, how come President Trump did not replenish the stockpile since being in office. I'd like SOMEBODY to investigate that line of reasoning and report back. Don't just use Selecto.vision

From the article (above):

I am sorry to say that digging into the mask shortage does little to assuage one’s sense of outrage. The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.

In other words, the shortages are stemming from "just in time" purchase practices for which authorities did not anticipated or argue persuasively for preparations against a nation-wide pandemic virus for which no one has immunity.

 
 
 
Nerm_L
1.1.9  seeder  Nerm_L  replied to  CB @1.1.8    6 months ago
Okay, so since SOMEBODY (I wonder who) is looking to make a faux case, how come President Trump did not replenish the stockpile since being in office. I'd like SOMEBODY to investigate that line of reasoning and report back. Don't just use Selecto.vision

President Trump did not change policy to decentralize the stockpile; that was the Obama administration.  Trump inherited a system that the experts created and assured the country was working properly.

In other words, the shortages are stemming from "just in time" purchase practices for which authorities did not anticipated or argue persuasively for preparations against a nation-wide pandemic virus for which no one has immunity.

That is correct.  In case you haven't noticed, President Trump has been trying to correct that problem by revitalizing manufacturing in the United States.  Making the United States more self reliant and less dependent upon foreign interests has been a central theme of Make America Great Again.

The complaint now being made against Trump by the left is that he hasn't been nationalist enough.  People haven't been complaining about the global partners of the United States failing to step up.  People have been complaining about the United States not doing enough for its own people.  That, my friend, is MAGA.  That's why Donald Trump was elected.

 
 
 
CB
1.1.10  CB   replied to  Nerm_L @1.1.9    6 months ago

Problems are nimble and dynamic. Solutions will find it needful to be nimble and dynamic as well.  The facts are that until this pandemic it was not necessary that the whole world stockpile non-critical accessories to healthcare. 

What I am really trying to convey in this communication is stop looking to scape-goat any president without ascertaining a comprehensive set of facts in evidence pointing to a definite conclusion!

From the article (above):
I am sorry to say that digging into the mask shortage does little to assuage one’s sense of outrage. The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.

You wrote:

In case you haven't noticed, President Trump has been trying to correct that problem by revitalizing manufacturing in the United States.  Making the United States more self reliant and less dependent upon foreign interests has been a central theme of Make America Great Again.

A noble goal, but as you probably know it will not be profitable for this country to reconstitute full manufacturing services for the long haul. As we can not sell to others who will buy elsewhere in the world (the same/similar products).

 
 
 
Dulay
1.1.11  Dulay  replied to  Nerm_L @1.1.7    6 months ago
Based upon the claim that policy was changed so that local, and state facilities were to maintain a stockpile then obviously New York didn't adequately comply with that policy change.

I made no such claim. The stockpiles that I spoke of were to be maintained by the HHS. They are just NOT in Federal facilities. 

 
 
 
Paula Bartholomew
1.2  Paula Bartholomew  replied to  Nerm_L @1    6 months ago

FEMA just ordered a ton of masks from a clothing manufacturer who to keep his employees working has them making the masks.  At first, the owner received no money, but the order from FEMA will keep him solvent for now.

 
 
 
zuksam
1.2.1  zuksam  replied to  Paula Bartholomew @1.2    6 months ago

Remember the Doctors from the 60-70s always wore cloth masks that could be laundered and used over and over. That was before we became a single use disposable Society.

 
 
 
Split Personality
1.2.2  Split Personality  replied to  zuksam @1.2.1    6 months ago

Exactly.

Ever wonder why all Arabs cover their faces, both men and women, and are very careful about touching strangers?

Food for thought, what pandemic taught them that?

 
 
 
zuksam
1.2.3  zuksam  replied to  Split Personality @1.2.2    6 months ago
what pandemic taught them that?

Probably every pandemic there has ever been since the Middle East sits at the crossroads of three Continents.

 
 
 
Split Personality
2  Split Personality    6 months ago

Bandanas...hmm, silk or linen?

Home Depot & Lowes are out of protective goggles and dust masks.

People will get creative in an emergency.

 
 
 
MUVA
2.1  MUVA  replied to  Split Personality @2    6 months ago

I have dust mask by the hundreds I didn’t think they are ok to use?

 
 
 
Split Personality
2.1.1  Split Personality  replied to  MUVA @2.1    6 months ago

If the choice is nothing or a dust mask, I will tolerate the dust mask.

I hear that racquet ball goggles and swimmers googles are sold out too.

Certainly better than no eye protection, particularly for health workers.

 
 
 
CB
3  CB     6 months ago
That’s where cheap, disposable face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns come in. That we failed to procure enough safety gear for medical workers — not to mention for sick people and for the public, as some health experts might have recommended if masks were not in such low supply — seems astoundingly negligent.

I am going to hark on the public matter. I am in possession of a mask from our fire season which I held on to "just in case." Never did it cross my mind about the efficiency or the "constitution" of the materials in that mask for containing virulent materials. And moreover, I just took for granted, not the refrain "God would provide," but "We're will make more."

I am confused and bitter that my area has caused me to exhaust my only mask which I can buy; I can not procure any other for so many days running now. I agree with the writer, this is shameful. We are all exposed and out there to dry for the sake of, . . . inability to negotiate paper masks in reasonable numbers.

Who took them all?!! Who's hoarding all our masks?!!

If the public can not have get protective masks on the front lines 'pools' where this virus wants to be, then the issues of medical workers striving for masks falls to secondary. Our brave medical workers are overwhelmed with us, because the masses are not allowed to independently purchase the help demanded for their face parts.

Moreover, the first, most reasonable, thing China did when its NATIONAL EMERGENCY came was shut down to the outside world. Until it had what it needed for the Chinese people. I can't hate on that, either. That, my friend, is actually how it is supposed to work: unless the contracts going forward say different.

So I sit here 'hurt.' Irony is, the next time I see an abundance of masks available - I will procure them and lock them in 'cold-storage.' If it turns out that hoarding is a problem for Americans, then it becomes what we have experienced: If you can't be them - join them! Hoarding breeds hoarding.

 
 
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