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The New Yorker magazine has a memorable cover. It shows President Trump wearing a face mask, which covers his eyes instead of his open mouth. After facing initial criticism, the administration is working to show that it's addressing the spread of coronavirus. Among other things, the administration wants to increase the supply of face masks for doctors and nurses. That turns out to be hard to do, not because of politics, but because of economics. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The coronavirus is keeping Mike Bowen extremely busy.
MIKE BOWEN: I've gotten a request for maybe a billion and a half masks if you added up all the requests that I've got.
NOGUCHI: Billion and a half, wow.
BOWEN: Yeah, about a hundred calls and emails a day about new masks, and normally I don't get any.
NOGUCHI: Bowen is executive vice president of Texas-based Prestige Ameritech. It's one of the few domestic makers of respirators and surgical face masks. Normally, businesses want orders to spike. They hope customers line up for their products. But Bowen is not pleased. His business simply cannot keep up with demand. 3M, one of the biggest mask makers, also says it's stepping up factory production worldwide. But it, too, cannot fulfill all the new orders.
BOWEN: Imagine if, all at once, millions of people wanted to skateboard. The (laughter) skateboarding industry is not set up for spikes like that, and neither is the mask-making industry.
NOGUCHI: Bowen's company owns a limited number of machines that assemble, sew and shape the masks. A decade ago, it ramped up during the swine flu outbreak by buying more machines and hiring 150 new workers.
BOWEN: We made a really big mistake.
NOGUCHI: It took four months to increase production.
BOWEN: These machines are 20 to 30-feet long. They're computer controlled. You know, they cost a quarter million to a million dollars depending on what they do.
NOGUCHI: And by the time they were ready, the swine flu crisis had ended. Demand vaporized. And Prestige Ameritech almost went bankrupt.
BOWEN: Because one day - and it is literally almost, like, one day - it just quits. The demand is over. The phones stop ringing.
NOGUCHI: The hospitals and medical supply companies suddenly had too many masks. They stopped buying for months. That was a business headache. But the recent shortages also show how a lack of steady orders can create a sudden national security risk. And that, says Bowen, can be traced back 15 years. That's when many factories moved overseas, where masks could be made at a fraction of Bowen's costs.
BOWEN: The surgical mask supply went from being 90% U.S.-made to being 95% foreign-made in literally one year.
NOGUCHI: Why is that?
BOWEN: I think the biggest thing was Kimberly-Clark moving out of the country. They were the market leader. And then everyone else followed.
NOGUCHI: Kimberly-Clark is no longer a major mask maker. The federal government is now trying to remedy that issue. It's now pledging to buy leftover masks and keep bigger stockpiles of them. For years, Bowen tried to get the government to pay attention to this issue. He wrote letters to Presidents Obama and Trump warning an epidemic could prompt China to stop exporting its supply, leaving American health care in a bind. He wanted the government to start requiring hospitals to buy more American-made products.
BOWEN: If every hospital would just pay a few cents more for a mask, there wouldn't be an issue here.
NOGUCHI: The coronavirus proved Bowen right. Now he has the administration's attention. Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified in the House. He said the country needs 25 times more masks than it has stockpiled. Steven Adams is acting director of the Strategic National Stockpile. That's essentially the country's emergency medicine cabinet. It holds reserves of vaccines and medical supplies in warehouses around the country. He says the government now realizes it needs more mask factories in the U.S.
STEVEN ADAMS: Coronavirus has made the theoretical risks seem far more real, I think, to most of us.
NOGUCHI: So the government is looking to buy half a billion domestically-made medical masks.
ADAMS: Our hope is that this can be a step and start moving the balance back toward a greater percentage being produced in the U.S.
NOGUCHI: Adams recognizes that will take time - months or years after this crisis passes - but he hopes the country will be better prepared for the next outbreak. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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