Face Masks Are Again in Short Supply as Covid-19 Cases Surge
Despite increased production of protective gear, levels of N95 face masks are lower than recommended at many health-care facilities
By | Photographs by Gabriela Bhaskar for The Wall Street Journal
Nov. 4, 2020 9:19 am ET
A surge of Covid-19 cases and stockpiling of N95 masks in much of the country have put fresh strains on the supply of critical protective gear, manufacturers and health officials say.
While the national supply of protective equipment has improved since the first months of the pandemic, levels at some health-care facilities remain well below what regulators recommend. Many health-care facilities continue to ration and reuse masks, even as manufacturers have raised production, and some state health departments said they expect supplies to tighten further.
States have been trying to build up supplies of N95 masks, which guard wearers from tiny particles including the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, and other gear like gloves since the start of the pandemic. A few have mandated that hospitals do the same. But the stockpiling efforts are being slowed by the increase in Covid-19 cases.
In Michigan, for example, nearly two-thirds of health systems are reporting less then a three-week supply for one or more types of protective gear. The state’s health department recommends a 90-day supply.
At Protective Health Gear, a worker inserts foam nose pieces into N95 masks.
MidMichigan Health has enough N95s for a few weeks, and many of them are stored in a vacant Sears store, said Jeff Wagner, supply chain manager for the network of seven major health-care facilities in central and northern Michigan.
MidMichigan’s doctors and nurses are reusing masks with a decontamination system to stretch supplies as they treat a rising number of Covid-19 patients. The system is treating its highest number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients to date, and the state recently reported a record number of new confirmed cases.
“We would really like to beef up our stockpiles, but volume is high for everyone, so you can’t,” Mr. Wagner said. “The N95s are really the most challenging.”
Demand for N95 masks continues to run ahead of production in much of the country. New Mexico said last week that nearly 90% of its hospitals were reusing N95 masks under emergency guidelines as new cases have risen substantially in recent weeks. Wyoming’s health department said its hospitals could revert to emergency reuse of N95 masks if hospitalizations rise further.
“We expect the need to increase and supplies to tighten again,” said Jon Ebelt, spokesman for Montana’s public-health department.
Brian Wolin, chief executive of Protective Health Gear, and Evan Schulman, chief operating officer. The company recently began making more than a million N95 face masks a month.
3M Co. MMM -1.56% , maker of the first approved N95 and the biggest domestic manufacturer, is on-track to produce nearly 100 million masks a month in the U.S. this year, more than four times what it made before the pandemic. Honeywell International Inc. HON -0.48% is producing 20 million N95 masks a month in the U.S. Other companies have added capacity for at least 20 million N95 more masks a month. It still isn’t enough, manufacturers say.
“N95s are still in high demand. We have more demand than we can supply,” 3M Chief Executive Mike Roman said in an interview.