By Mary Johnson, editor
Why is the United States running out of medical masks for healthcare workers and patients? How did our healthcare system fail to provide the most basic and inexpensive protective equipment needed to deal with the coronavirus?
Today’s drastic shortage of protective medical gear is particularly troubling to me, considering I spent a mere $3.98 for a batch of 50 paper face masks just two years ago. In my area of Virginia, local primary care clinics and hospitals kept boxes of inexpensive paper medical masks, along with Kleenex, at the front door, for patients and visitors to help themselves.
As cases of the coronavirus surged here in Virginia, that changed dramatically. Medical masks are hard to find, at any price. The shortage is so drastic that hospitals are emailing patients asking for donations, and doctors are posting articles begging employers to share surplus supplies. Nurses are frantically sewing their own masks and posting YouTube videos to show the rest of us how to make them for our local hospitals.
The Centers for Disease control has warned for years about the threat of a pandemic like the Covid-19 corona virus, and the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the U.S. will consume 3.5 billion face masks fighting it. Yet the reasons behind today’s shortage have done little to soothe my growing agitation.
We are running out of protective gear to battle the corona virus for two reasons:
- The rise of low-cost overseas manufacturing of such items and,
- The failure of both government-funded and private healthcare systems to seriously address the growing vulnerabilities of relying so heavily on such a limited number of overseas trading partners for these critical supplies.
The New York Times reports that over reliance on China has led to the current shortage of face masks. China made half of the world’s supply of medical masks before the coronavirus started there, and that has grown to as much as 80% of the world supply since.
Although China has not specifically halted exports to the U.S., it has effectively been able to do so, by requiring manufacturers to sell masks straight to the government of China for distribution, leaving none for export. This includes the N95 masks — so desperately sought by medical workers here in the U.S. Those masks are made by 3M, a U.S.-based company with a factory in Shanghai. In addition to restricting exports, China appears to have cornered the market by purchasing a vast portion of the global supply of medical masks from other nations as well, and even obtaining some through donations. Thus, at this point purchasers, including city, state and the federal government are bidding against each other for the masks making it difficult for some areas to get the protective gear they need.
Now worries about our nation’s shortage of medical masks have reached a crisis point. Emergency room doctors and healthcare workers have been hospitalized with the coronavirus, and our nation’s hospitals and health systems risk being overwhelmed, endangering us all.
Supporters of reducing reliance on China say that reliance leaves the U.S. dangerously short of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. China also manufactures much of the world’s penicillin, antibiotics and pain medicines. Of course, there are legitimate questions about how much big government can and should compel private companies to reorganize a global supply chain that is heavily invested in China, and how quickly companies in the U.S. could do so, even if they want to. Expanding U.S. manufacturing is likely to require a lot more work, and to take a lot more time to be able to accomplish fairly and cost efficiently. But our nation needs to explore a far wider safety net of supply sources starting now.
If the shortage of medical supplies bothers you as much as it bothers me, I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators. Ask what measures he or she favors to address the current shortage of medical supplies, and what plans they support to address future emergencies.
For those of you who want to help, contact your local hospitals, health clinics, or nursing homes to learn how you can donate protective medical gear. For those of you who know how to sew and have fabric sitting unused, your local medical workers need you! Watch some YouTube videos and join the fast-growing national effort to sew and donate medical face masks to local hospitals. Here’s a video about how one grandmother and her two granddaughters got involved in my area: https://www.nbc29.com/2020/03/24/greene-county-family-makes-face-masks-donate/.
“The World Needs Masks. China Makes Them—But Has Been Hoarding Them,” Keith Bradsher and Liz Alderman, The New York Times, March 13, 2020.
“Coronavirus Spurs E.S. Efforts to End China’s Chokehold on Drugs,” Ana Swanson, The New York Times, March 11, 2020.