Lydall Corp.
Lydall Corp 2020 Doctors

American-Made PPE for All Is Within Reach

Feb. 17, 2021
Further incentives would help with manufacturing mask filtration material, which requires deep materials-science and engineering expertise.

Opinion/Analysis

Just weeks since taking office, President Joe Biden has demonstrated the leadership required to quell Covid-19 cases enough so that we can get back to something resembling our normal lives. One of his first actions as president, signing an executive order requiring face masks to be worn on federal property, was critically needed and long overdue.

Invoking the Domestic Production Act and signing a “Buy American” executive order ensure that everyone involved in the domestic supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE) will continue to prioritize face mask production over other products. But these early actions are not enough; they must serve as the groundwork for broader, long-lasting and impactful policies.

After a slow start, vaccinations are, mercifully, on the rise, and today, nearly 10% of Americans have received at least one dose. But worrisome new strains of the virus – which are potentially more contagious, more fatal and less responsive to the vaccines – are driving Americans to double-up on cloth face masks.

No one should have to double-mask. Unlike cloth masks, N95 and surgical face masks contain an inner filtration layer that traps harmful particles, keeping them away from the wearer’s nose and mouth. As the research has told us, time and time and time again, these masks are our best line of defense against the virus, and will continue to be until vaccines are more widely disseminated.

In fact, our engineering team estimates that you would need to layer 28 cloth masks to provide the same level of protection in filtering out virus particles as a single N95 mask – and doing so would majorly impact your ability to breathe. N95 and surgical masks, on the other hand, are designed to block as many particles as possible while allowing in enough filtered air, and meet standards for quality and efficiency set by NIOSH (a division of the CDC) and ASTM International. 

All Americans should have access to safe, reliable, high-quality face masks manufactured right here in the United States. But as we know, that unfortunately has not been the case. Even our frontline and healthcare workers have had to wash and reuse N95 masks, which is unacceptable.

In order to understand how President Biden, his administration and members of the PPE supply chain can work together to close the mask shortage, we must examine what caused it.

Several decades ago, production of PPE, like many other products, shifted overseas to countries like China in pursuit of the lowest cost. Few recognized that lacking a fully domestic supply chain for PPE would be an issue until the pandemic hit, when China prioritized the needs of its own citizens over others. The U.S., like many other countries, was caught off-guard.

Since the onset of the pandemic, many manufacturers have stepped up and pivoted to increase face mask production domestically. This was done in stages: first by repurposing existing equipment to produce masks, which was accomplished quickly, and then with new capital investment.

But increasing mask production is only one component of domesticating the supply chain for PPE. What is much more complicated, yet just as crucial, is locally sourcing the filtration material that goes inside a mask to trap harmful particles. This is the critical component in masks that provides protection against viruses like Covid-19.

In both N95 respirators and surgical masks, this filtration material is called “meltblown,” because it is made by melting polypropylene and blowing it onto a conveyer belt to create a nonwoven fabric. Manufacturing meltblown requires deep materials-science expertise and engineering know-how, close relationships with suppliers and access to the right machines. In other words, it is not a business one can pivot to overnight. In fact, there are only a few companies in the U.S. and the world capable of manufacturing meltblown.

The U.S. Department of Defense, to its immense credit, recognizes the essential role meltblown plays in the domestic production of face masks, and last year, it granted $16 million to U.S. manufacturers. This funding went a long way toward investing in the equipment and supplies needed to ramp up production – but more can and must be done.

We must learn from this experience, be better for doing so, and level the playing field to allow for fair competition. China has vastly different environmental and labor laws, as well as government-supported state franchises, all of which contributed to the world outsourcing its PPE to be manufactured there prior to the pandemic. We now know this is an untenable situation moving forward.

After enduring so much – lives and livelihoods lost – at the expense of the pandemic, it is unlikely that PPE production will ever completely migrate back overseas. But there are actions President Biden can take to ensure the U.S. sustains a high-quality and reliable PPE supply post-pandemic.

It’s not enough to let the free market play out in this crisis – without additional protections in place, consumers are incentivized to go after the lowest-cost products. The same goes for schools and hospitals, which are often under pressure to cut costs.

One counteraction the Biden administration could take would be to identify strategic industries that are critical to public health, such as PPE, and offer subsidies or incentives to produce more in the U.S. Taking it a step further, they could establish domestic-buying mandates, requiring state and local governments, as well as the military, to buy products manufactured locally, and require their contractors to do the same.

Even after we are on the other side of this pandemic and masks are not so direly needed, these policies would continue to pay off. For one, the U.S., like many other countries, has burned through its stockpile of PPE and will need to rebuild it to a higher level than it was pre-COVID, to the tune of more than two billion face masks per year.

Another pledge President Biden has made is to safely reopen the majority of the country’s K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office. His administration has committed $130 billion to retrofit schools with better ventilation systems so they can operate safely. This ambitious but very necessary endeavor will require higher-efficiency air filters, which use similar filtration material as face masks.

There is also the very real possibility that viruses like COVID-19 will become a more common occurrence. And that’s just one threat of many; look at the wildfires ravaging the West Coast. Smoke, smog, allergens chemical pollutants – all can be combatted through face masks and better indoor air quality. Just as we saw in Asia after the SARS epidemic, increased mask usage could become part of our “new normal,” especially during cold and flu season.

As President Biden remarked when introducing his American Rescue Plan, “Imagine the future Made in America in all of America and all by Americans … We will buy American products and support millions of American manufacturing jobs and enhance our competitive strength in an increasingly competitive world.”

Making things is part of our heritage, and innovation is core to who we are as a nation. By ensuring U.S. PPE manufacturers are able to compete and thrive, these policies can help unite Americans around a shared sense of pride and instill confidence in the quality of the PPE available to them.

Sara Greenstein is the president & CEO of Lydall, a leading global manufacturer of value-added engineered materials and specialty filtration solutions.

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