Where’s the PPE?
As mask mandates fall, many of us have forgotten the panic that descended in March of 2020. A U.S. population of 330 million people was advised to wear masks. First responders and service workers were particularly vulnerable.
The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that 80 to 90 percent of personal protective equipment (PPE) demand pre-pandemic was imported, mostly from China. And as the epicenter of the pandemic, China was prioritizing its own needs.
Surprisingly, PPE was not among the products covered by the Berry Amendment. The U.S. government had no idea how much PPE was stockpiled or being produced domestically.
American Textiles to the Rescue
In 2020, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) issued an urgent call for masks, gowns, and other PPE, a commitment of $645 million. A consortium of U.S. textile organizations and manufacturers came together to answer the call — and to keep the domestic textile business alive.
Early cloth mask and gown iterations were pumped out by the millions and distributed to retail, institutional, and emergency users. The biggest HHS contract went to Hanesbrands, Inc., a $321.5 million order completed in October, 2020.
“It was an interesting time. We all learned a lot from each other,” comments Ron Roach, president of employee-owned Contempora Fabrics in North Carolina. The circular knitter joined forces with other manufacturers to produce cloth masks and gowns at six different U.S. locations.
Creating a Domestic Supply Chain, Overnight
In March of 2020, the nation’s emergency stockpile of medical-grade masks was estimated to be one percent of what was needed. HHS estimated that the U.S. would need 3.5 billion disposable, medical-grade face masks for healthcare workers, as well as a billion hospital gowns—a much bigger ask.
Surgical masks and approved N95 respirators are made from electrostatically-charged, non-woven spunbond or meltblown. Unsurprisingly, China dominates the production of these non-wovens.
The big American mask suppliers—3M and Honeywell—manufactured much of their PPE in Asia. When China restricted exports, both companies revved up domestic production, adding equipment and personnel.
A few dozen American companies pivoted to making medical-grade masks to help meet the demand, investing in high-tech ultrasonic welding machines and automated production equipment.
In Florida, a company making zip-ties retooled in 2020 to become US Meltblown, manufacturing the critical non-woven filter material from domestic polypropylene. Company founder Robert Sires says, “We decided to support the small businesses who were making masks in the USA. We designed our own equipment, and in six months we were up and running.”
Comfortable elastics that hold masks in place were also in short supply. Unifi, Inc., the global manufacturer of polyester, nylon and REPREVE recycled yarns, responded with Berry Compliant Knit Cord, a customizable synthetic cord that provided the correct compression and fit for N95s. “Customers tell us that our knit cord is stronger and enhances the ultrasonic bond,” says Keith Bumgardner, Unifi senior technical manager.
Brian Moore, VP global brand sales for Unifi, points out that the knit cord’s manufacture is regional, and Unifi controls the logistics. “There was nobody domestic that was vertical at scale, from polymer forward,” he adds.
From Shortage to Surplus
Once the first wave of COVID subsided, Chinese PPE supplies began to flood the market again. Buyers at U.S. hospital systems, medical supply distributors and state governments lost interest in sourcing the more expensive American-made masks.
As vaccinations became readily available and states lifted mask mandates, retail mask sales plummeted. Hanesbrands, which in 2020 saw PPE as a revenue-maker, exited the business in early 2021, donating its cloth mask surplus to state governments and charities.
“Mask production slowed down just as quickly as it built up,” says Roach. “We sold off our cloth mask inventory during the Omicron surge.”
As Chinese PPE poured in, the shortage of product was over. In June 2021 Honeywell shut down two of its domestic N95 plants. Entrepreneurs who had pivoted their businesses to PPE were left holding surplus.
After much lobbying on behalf of the textile industry by the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) and other groups, the Portman Make PPE in America Act, included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill of November 2021, became law. It requires federal agencies to issue long-term contracts for American-made PPE.
To date the legislation has done little to shore up production and sales of domestic masks and gowns. “Money was allocated in the infrastructure bill for HHS to replenish the national stockpile,” Moore points out, “but HHS contracts for medical-grade masks have yet to materialize.” Bumgardner adds, “The delay has led to the demise of a number of people’s businesses.”
In January 2022 the U.S. government began giving away 400 million N95 masks (over half a reported stockpile of 750 million) through community health centers and pharmacies.
“It’s just a Big Government Thing”
Many of America’s textile makers are left with a bad taste in their mouths.
After investing $4 million to get US Meltblown up and running in 2020, Sires is now watching his mask-making customers shut down. “Every day we see more and more companies closing down and leaving this space. The U.S. government basically lied and never followed through on made-in-America masks or other PPE.”
Sires believes that most of the HHS contracts went to 3M. “We don’t know anyone who got a contract,” he says.
“We had all the capacity, but now our customers are selling their machines,” Sires continues. “It’s not a Republican or Democratic thing—just a big government thing.”
Lesson learned: Be resilient
With a stronger domestic supply chain now in place, the U.S. textile industry continues to be resilient. “Millions of dollars have been spent by U.S. companies to be able to supply medical grade PPE in the U.S. Those companies deserve to continue to participate in the business. NCTO has done a fantastic job bringing this to the forefront,” says Roach.
According to Moore, the HHS domestic face mask solicitation has moved out of technical review and is asking potential contractors to provide letters of commitment from their suppliers; while a level two hospital gown solicitation is expected soon. “Maybe things are finally starting to happen,” he says.
“We are seeing a softening of the consumer mask market, but we continue to have strong interest in institutional and government contracts,” confirms Bumgardner. “Unifi has long played in the medical end use area, and we continue to enhance our capacities. We are finding out who is in it for the long haul.”
Contempora is making washable hospital gowns for a large hospital system, and Roach believes that it will continue to go well. “I think the bottom line is that when PPE was needed immediately in the U.S., our textile companies came to the rescue and completely changed their businesses to make PPE quickly. I was very proud of the way our entire industry responded and came together.”
While the urgent need for PPE in the U.S. has abated, COVID continues to mutate and infect the vulnerable on a global basis. The current surge and lockdowns in China may well curtail Chinese exports of PPE yet again.
“The government was so short-sighted. Another need will arise,” Sires laments. “But we already have five other ideas. We are flexible. We will survive.”