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NPR Probes Why Personal Protective Equipment Is Still In Short Supply


NPR has been investigating these shortages of personal protective equipment. That's right; six months into the coronavirus pandemic, there is still vital gear that is in short supply, like N95 masks, gloves, gowns. NPR's Joel Rose is one of the reporters looking into why America can't make what it needs, and he joins us. Good morning, Joel.


GREENE: So set the stage for us here. I mean, obviously we're in a global marketplace now. Why did you focus and zero in on domestic production of these things?

ROSE: Well, since the pandemic began, there's been a lot of rhetoric about manufacturing this critical protective gear here in this country. President Trump has made promises. So has the industry. They say the U.S. is too reliant on China and an unreliable global supply chain. But as you say, the U.S. still is not making enough respirator masks and other PPE here. And we wanted to know why not.

GREENE: So what did you learn?

ROSE: Well, let's take N95 masks. What we found is that a handful of big domestic manufacturers have stepped up production. So far, though, they have not been able to meet what is an enormous demand. And many smaller manufacturers want to help fill the gap, but they are wary, in part because of what happened back in the spring. Remember; we all heard a lot of stories about scrappy manufacturers promising to revamp their factories to start making personal protective equipment. It turns out many of them were not successful - at least not at recouping on that investment. I talked to one guy who owns a factory in Michigan.

RANVIR GUJRAL: We jumped in headfirst. We were getting lots of orders. We were getting lots of demand.

ROSE: This is Ranvir Gujral. He's the owner of Adaptive Energy, a company that makes fuel cells. Back in the spring, the company retooled part of its factory in Michigan. They started with the easy stuff, making hand sanitizer and assembling plastic face shields.


ROSE: But pretty quickly, demand faded. Now the company's CEO, Michael Edison, says finished face shields are piling up in boxes, unsold.

MICHAEL EDISON: We've got them sort of stacked up all over the facility right now.

ROSE: Gujral says the market was glutted.

GUJRAL: We weren't the only ones with the brilliant idea of getting our folks back to work and, you know, trying to help and manufacturer PPE.

ROSE: Gujral and other manufacturers saw an opportunity to not only help protect front-line workers but to keep their own employees working, too. Without a coherent national plan, many of them shifted gears to make shields and sanitizer, but not N95 respirator masks, which are more complicated to manufacture.

Six months later, experts say the U.S. is still far short of the 3.5 billion masks that public health officials say are needed this year. Still, President Trump consistently ignores that reality. Here he is at the White House last week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've opened up factories. We've had tremendous success with face masks and with shields.

ROSE: Shields, yes, but N95 masks are still in short supply. The White House narrative is that the pandemic revealed the danger of relying too much on Chinese suppliers and that the U.S. has ramped up domestic production significantly, making those early shortages a thing of the past. Here's Trump at the Republican National Convention.


TRUMP: We're taking our business out of China. We are bringing it home. We want our business to come home.


ROSE: But critics say that in reality, the administration is fumbling a chance to bring the PPE industry back home.

SCOTT PAUL: We're not seeing that happen. In fact, we're behind in manufacturing jobs. We're importing more PPEs than ever.

ROSE: Scott Paul is the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. He says it's true that the White House worked with some big companies, including 3M and Honeywell, to ramp up domestic production of respirator masks, but they haven't been able to make enough masks as the pandemic wore on and demand only increased. There is a solution, Paul says.

PAUL: It would make complete sense to want to scale up some small and mid-sized manufacturers to help fill in this massive gap because we're not tens of millions of masks short; we're hundreds of millions of masks short of where we need to be.

ROSE: But the federal government has no plan to help small and mid-sized manufacturers move into PPE. That leaves people like Ranvir Gujral, the factory owner in Michigan, to figure it out on their own. Gujral still wants to help. He's thinking about retooling his factory in Michigan again, this time to make N95 masks.

GUJRAL: We have the machines lined up. We have the raw materials lined up. We have the capital lined up.

ROSE: What he's missing is some certainty that his investment will pay off. Gujral's factory wouldn't be ready to start cranking out masks until the spring.

GUJRAL: Are we going to still have demand? Are these customers still going to, you know, come to us? We don't want to be left holding the bag.

ROSE: Remember; Gujral still has 100,000 face shields sitting on his factory floor in Michigan. And he can't risk repeating that experience with N95 masks.

GUJRAL: This is a big enough move to, you know, put us out of business if it doesn't go well.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose bringing us those voices. And Joel is still with us. I want to follow up on one thing you mentioned there, Joel - the Trump administration being criticized for just not having any sort of comprehensive plan here on PPE. This is something the president talks about a lot. I mean, what exactly is the White House doing?

ROSE: Well, the Trump administration has taken some steps aimed at shoring up U.S. manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. The president signed an executive order last month that will require federal agencies to buy American-made when possible. That is a good step, according to Kimberly Glas. She is the head of the National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry trade association. But Glas says it will take a real strategic federal plan and maybe even tax incentives to get her member companies to invest and to help them compete with China.

KIMBERLY GLAS: My fear is a year from now, we will see these supply chains that were heavily dominated in China go back to China fully.

ROSE: And the U.S. will have squandered a chance to bring some of these jobs back onshore.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thanks for all of this. We appreciate it.

ROSE: Yeah, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.