Health workers are still being forced to ration protective masks, but small U.S. manufacturers can’t find buyers, and some are in a danger of going under.
A year into the pandemic, the disposable, virus-filtering N95 mask remains a coveted piece of protective gear. Continuing shortages have forced doctors and nurses to reuse their N95s, and ordinary Americans have scoured the internet — mostly in vain — to get them.
Companies like United States Mask, a start-up in Fort Worth, Texas, which began producing N95s in November, may not be able to hold out much longer. John Bielamowicz, a commercial real estate broker who started the company with a friend, David Baillargeon, in the early weeks of the pandemic, said he has been frustrated by the lack of interest from the hospital chains, long-term care facilities and local governments that buy in bulk.
Although the company’s masks have been certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr. Bielamowicz says many buyers are reluctant to give unfamiliar products a try. Big hospitals prefer to stick with masks they already use because of the time-consuming need to fit-test new models on employees. But many cost-conscious bulk buyers prefer to purchase cheaper Chinese ones.
One of the more painful rebuffs came from Tarrant County, where Mr. Bielamowicz’s factory is located. Last month the county disqualified his company’s bid because officials wanted to buy specific Chinese-made models. County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
“We got into this business because we were troubled by America’s dependence on foreign manufacturing and wanted to do something about it,” said Mr. Bielamowicz, whose masks sell for $2.25 a piece — a few cents more than those made in China. “Are we going to be left to die on the vine when we’re making N95s at a competitive price?”
United States Mask co-founders, John Bielamowicz, left, and David Baillargeon, at their company’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Cooper Neill for The New York Times
Quality control at United States Mask in Fort Worth. Credit: Cooper Neill for The New York Times
As they hold out hope for intervention from Washington, United States Mask and other N95 producers said that the ability to sell to the public through online retailers like Amazon would help them stay afloat.
Mr. Bielamowicz, for one, has discovered the benefits of a little public exposure. Last month, as he and his partner were considering whether to throw in the towel, a local newspaper columnist wrote about their tribulations. The company was immediately overwhelmed by orders from school nurses, cancer patients and essential workers, many of whom said they had given up on finding N95 masks.
Within three days, the company had sold out its entire stock of 250,000 masks.
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