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