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Surgical Mask Manufacturer In Texas Is Inundated With Requests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 10,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, and as the pandemic spreads, hospitals around the country still don't have the protective gear they need to keep workers safe. That's according to a new watchdog report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. The report found that some hospitals have had to source N95 masks from auto repair shops or nail salons.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, let's hear now from someone who makes those masks. Michael Bowen is co-owner and executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech. That is the largest manufacturer of surgical face masks here in the U.S. He told me his company has dramatically ramped up production as factories elsewhere in the world idle.

MICHAEL BOWEN: I get maybe 3 to 400 emails a day. Most of those are asking for lots and lots of masks - you know, anywhere from a thousand, which just maybe a small hospital would ask for, to 50 million, 100 million. So to say I've been asked for billions and billions of masks over the last 60 or 70 days is - it would not be an exaggeration.

KELLY: How many can you make?

BOWEN: That's the problem. All the mask companies in the world can't meet the demand by any stretch. I mean, the demand cannot be met. Let me say it that way. The demand cannot be met.

KELLY: This is a very basic question, but why can't you ramp up really quickly, really fast? This is a question of specialized equipment?

BOWEN: Yeah, and training. It takes a long time to build the machines, and this is a temporary situation. So for our company, ramping up past a certain point becomes a suicide mission. You know, we did this 10 years ago during H1N1, and we hired a lot of people and ramped up. And then we nearly went bankrupt afterward. We laid off 150 people and nearly went out of business. You know, it's not like flipping on a switch. It's building machines. It's hiring people. It's training people. That's the issue.

KELLY: Stay with that experience from 2009 with H1N1. You ramped up. You were left with - what? - a huge surplus of masks that you couldn't sell?

BOWEN: Well, what happened is we rose to the occasion. Hospitals were calling. We bought a bigger factory. We built machines. We hired an extra 150 people. And then when it ended, the people that we helped went back to the foreign-made masks. So we ended up having to lay off all of those people, and it was a very brutal situation.

KELLY: I mean, I have read that since that experience, you have been sounding the alarm. I know you wrote to President Trump. I know you wrote President Obama before him, warning that it wasn't going to be if but when that there would be another...

BOWEN: Right.

KELLY: ...Epidemic and that the U.S. suppliers would come up short, that there had to be a better domestic supply chain, which is obviously not where we find ourselves. Are you being listened to now?

BOWEN: Well, I think so. I hope so. I think the difference now is since this is so much worse, I'm hopeful that it will be different. But as we speak, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration even buy foreign-made masks.

KELLY: What percentage of your orders come from the federal government? And I suppose I'm asking in part because we keep...

BOWEN: Zero.

KELLY: Zero. There...

BOWEN: Zero.

KELLY: It's all private customers, hospitals and so forth.

BOWEN: Yeah. It's hospitals and hospital distributors and dental distributors. We haven't done business with the federal government since 2010. Over the last 10 years, we have bid on the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration's masks, and they always choose masks that are made in Mexico because they're cheaper.

KELLY: I mean, make the case for me why the government and private business - why shouldn't they go with the cheapest option?

BOWEN: Because in a pandemic, the government of every country is going to take care of their own people. If there's not going to be a pandemic, it's no big deal. But if you think there's going to be a pandemic - which experts do - and that borders are going to close and there's going to be infrastructure disruption, it's safer to make masks in the United States.

KELLY: I have to note that for a man whose business is booming, you know, you sound angry. You sound angry about...

BOWEN: No, no, no.

KELLY: ...Opportunities that were squandered.

BOWEN: I'm not. No. No, no, no. You know, I have been off and on. Of course, I've been selling this message for 14 years, but I'm really not angry. I'm puzzled. And I think what I've been fighting is not the government, not President Obama, not President Trump. I think it's human nature. I think since everybody ignored it - I mean, reporters ignored it. Pandemic experts ignored it. Our government ignored it. Hospitals ignored it. Everybody ignored it. So to me, it's a human nature problem. So I'm over my anger.

KELLY: Yeah.

BOWEN: I just want to help. I just want to help everybody. I don't want to say, I told you so. I just want to help everybody.

KELLY: That is Mike Bowen. He's co-owner and executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, the country's largest domestic manufacturer of facemasks.

Mike Bowen, thank you.

BOWEN: You're welcome. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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