MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Face masks - everybody's talking about them. For a long time, health officials said most people did not need to wear them. Now some are recommending covering your face in public but using tightly wound scarves or homemade masks to save much-needed medical masks for health care professionals. Yesterday, President Trump announced new actions to help with the shortage of those masks. They're called N95 masks. They are the gold standard for protective gear.
NPR's Camila Domonoske is here now to explain what this means.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So there's all this controversy over N95 masks and the president's announcement that he is going to use the Defense Production Act against 3M - 3M being a company that makes all kinds of things but including these masks. What does this mean? The president says he's going to use the Defense Production Act against them.
DOMONOSKE: Right. So the Defense Production Act actually gives the president a range of different powers. So he can force the company to produce something that they don't normally produce. He can manage distribution of a product. He can organize the supply chain or crack down on hoarding.
In this particular instance, it's all about distribution. This order forces 3M to give priority to the U.S. government when the government places orders for these masks. And 3M says that the government is also asking the company not to export masks that are made in the U.S. to other countries, which is something that China did back during the worst days of its crisis.
KELLY: OK. What has 3M said in response?
DOMONOSKE: Well, first they said they are already working to boost production and have been for a long time. The company also warns that there is a danger to blocking exports because if the U.S. wants to protect U.S. access to U.S.-made masks, the U.S. actually imports most of its masks. So you can imagine if every country tries to do this, tries to keep its own masks for itself, there's fewer masks available for the U.S. to buy. 3M CEO Mike Roman told CNBC that that's started already.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE ROMAN: We've already seen export restrictions - export restrictions out of the EU, export restrictions out of Asian countries. And that has been the response to even the idea that PPE could leave their country.
DOMONOSKE: PPE, that's personal protective equipment. So that's one response. 3M also says there are humanitarian implications to stopping these exports.
KELLY: Like what? What humanitarian implications?
DOMONOSKE: Well, 3M says it's the only supplier of these masks to some regions. And this is something I heard from other people as well. I spoke to Thomas Tighe of Direct Relief, which is an aid group distributing supplies, and he says that he understands why people would ask why we wouldn't keep masks in the United States if you live in the United States and the need here is so great. But, he says...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THOMAS TIGHE: But I think it's also true that countries that have very little to begin with are looking at this wave of COVID-19 cases coming with no protection.
DOMONOSKE: So there's a lot of different needs that need to be balanced here.
KELLY: Why can't 3M and other companies - why can't American companies just produce more masks in a time of great demand?
DOMONOSKE: Well, they can, and they are. This is happening. It's happening very quickly, actually. A lot of companies are ramping up production, including 3M. The government placed a huge order for masks like N95 masks. And there's other kinds of PPE as well. Ford and GM and GE are making surgical masks and face masks. There's a lot of different efforts that are underway.
KELLY: All right. Thank you, Camila.
DOMONOSKE: Thank you.
KELLY: That is NPR's Camila Domonoske.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.