Outbreak strains market for medical masks

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NEW YORK — Officials in China are buying up medical masks from factories that typically supply hospitals around the world, forcing global manufacturers to boost output in other places and some hospitals to ration supplies.

Masks are essential protective gear for medical workers treating patients potentially infected with the coronavirus. China also is one of the world’s top suppliers of medical masks and protective gear.

Now Chinese officials are directing much of the supply to the front lines of the outbreak, leaving customers in the U.S. and other countries to look elsewhere for masks as global supplies tighten.

Medicom Group, a Montrealbased mask maker, said it received a letter from officials in Shanghai ordering it to sell output from its factory there to the local government. “They’ve got to take care of their people as well,” Chief Executive Ronald Reuben said. “It’s disruptive, but what can you do?”

Medicom is trying to ramp up production in Shanghai but its workforce has been winnowed by travel restrictions that kept many employees from returning after the Lunar New Year. “They are working around the clock,” he said.

The coronavirus has infected more than 31,000 people and killed more than 630. Most cases have appeared in mainland China, but people in more than a dozen other countries, including the U.S., also are sick.

Officials in India and Taiwan have banned exports of medical masks. Medicom, meanwhile, is raising output at mask factories in France and Augusta, Ga., as demand has swelled. The French plant, which typically makes around 170 million masks a year, has orders for 500 million.

3M Co. said the Shanghai municipal government is requiring additional “supervision and control” of some 3M facilities in China because of the outbreak. The local government has taken responsibility for orders and delivery of 3M respirators in Shanghai, company spokeswoman Jennifer Ehrlich said.

The local government in Dongguan is buying all of the masks from a factory owned by Makrite Industries Inc. in the southern Chinese manufacturing hub, that company said. Some of those masks are typically shipped to customers like Home Depot Inc. and Cardinal Health Inc., a medical-device maker and distributor.

“We need to support the government first until it gets better,” said Makrite CEO Bob Wen. He said officials were helping Makrite fill travel-related staffing gaps, which have crimped output at the factory. Its typical volume of 160,000 masks a day has fallen to 40,000 a day since the Lunar New Year holiday.

A letter dated Feb. 3 to a manufacturer from China’s State Council said the government would buy its entire supply of surgical masks and protective clothing, according to a copy of it reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The letter also said the government would set up a national reserve to absorb any surplus caused by the emergency.

Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara, Calif., nonprofit that provides medical supplies during disasters, is sending air shipments of more than 300,000 masks to hospitals in China.

The medical-grade masks most in demand — N95 respirators — block at least 95 percent of particles and are more advanced than the pleated masks many people wear to prevent the spread of disease. They are typically discarded after one wear. Medical staff treating a typical high-risk patient can go through 50 a day, physicians said.

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