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Why Mask, Gown, PPE Shortages Persist, Even Though Manufacturers Want To Help

By Forbes

This article was published in Forbes January 18, 2021. It seeks to answer a question we asked ourselves back in November. We are sharing it not to critique the last administration (especially considering it remained in power less than 48 hours after this article was published), but to explain some of the challenges that may have contributed to the disconnect between PPE manufacturers and users. It also contains some fun puns, weird analogies, and mentions SPESA member Charlie Merrow. Merrow Manufacturing is one part of a larger group of companies that specialize in manufacturing sewing machines (SPESA member company Merrow Sewing Machine), Technology, and Fashion.

Help me, help you.

That’s what Tom Cruise told Renée Zellweger in the movie Jerry Maguire. That’s also apparently what some clothing and other soft goods manufacturers have been trying to ask the U.S. government during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. The trouble is, according to some manufacturers, the response from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Administration seems to have been less than “you had me at face masks and gowns.”

Throughout most of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has suffered shortages of a whole lot of things. You and certain parts of your body may be familiar with the toilet paper shortage that happened last Spring. While the days of fighting for such rolls may now seem “behind” us, other shortages have persisted. One continuing shortage has been the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and protective gowns.

As Andrew Jacobs described in December for The New York Times, frontline medical workers have had ration their use of the disposable gloves, gowns, N95 respirator masks, and other protective gear needed to prevent the spread of the virus. That’s a bit like rationing the use of seat belts in cars and condoms during sex, except that you can choose not to drive or not to have sex. On the flip side, health care professionals can’t choose to not take care of patients, even though doing so without enough PPE may pose substantial risk.

To ease the PPE shortages, public health experts have pushed Trump to make more use of the Defense Production Act, which would allow the federal government to push companies to make and distribute products that will help protect the population. Trump has for the most part appeared reluctant to invoke this Act. Nevertheless, some companies have already seemed willing to step up to the plate. The problem may be that the Trump administration has lacked the proverbial balls, balls to pitch to the manufacturers, that is.

Take Merrow Manufacturing LLC, for example. As a manufacturer of soft goods like lingerie and bullet proofed vests, they’ve had to capabilities to say, “sew what,” during the pandemic.

Yet, according to Charlie Merrow, CEO of Merrow Manufacturing, the company that is equipped to produce over 750,000 gowns a week has been struggling to get the proper attention of the federal government. “At the end of February and beginning of March, we began working closely with the South Coast Hospital Group in Massachusetts,” he said.

Merrow described how hospitals and states hadn’t established long term contract for supplying PPE and the federal government didn’t provide support, “consolidated purchasing,” and “imported a lot from China.”

He also explained how health systems were left with shortages because “everyone has moved to just in time or JIT inventory. There was no building up of local supply chains.” In other words, health care facilities before the pandemic were just buying PPE whenever they happened to need it rather than establishing clear long-term connections with local manufacturers so that production could have been amped up quickly when needed.

And manufacturing is not like taking a selfie with a llama. You can’t just choose to do it. “Scaling up takes time. You have to build up resources,” Merrow explained. “The real problem is a lack of long term contracts. You have to build up the engine, build up the resources. You can’t treat manufacturing like a grocery store. It requires commitment to continuous production.”

Edward W. Cumins, President of Supertex, Inc., described similar issues. Based in North Carolina, Supertex makes a range of products from fishnets to fine lace. “We were originally set up to run Automotive Headliner fabric, for our 15 year long customer,” Cumins related.

“When Covid hit, the first industry to shut down was the automotive industry. Our customer had us stop that product immediately. Within a few weeks they came back with the PPE gown initiative. We began producing PPE gown material, and soon thereafter fabricating completed gowns.” However, that effort hit some major snags. “Unfortunately our customer lost the DLA government bid, and pulled that portion of our work away,” he said. “We are still all set up and looking for a good partner to get back into these items, at least producing the material.”

Additionally, Merrow pointed out how health care facilities had focused on purchasing disposable PPE rather than reusable ones that could be washed. “The amortized cost of reusable items can actually be less,” he said. “The government has been allowing this to happen. Why is [using disposable instead of reusable PPE] prevailing in board rooms across the U.S.? It doesn’t make sense. It’s an accounting problem. Hospitals that want to spend as little as possible.” But as Merrow explained, “the JIT inexpensive gown can be more expensive than a reusable gown.”

That doesn’t even account for the “billions of dollars that go into a landfill,” when you have to keep throwing disposable PPE away, Merrow noted. After all, the human head may weigh 8 pounds, according to that kid in Jerry Maguire, but around 4.9 pounds of total solid waste is generated per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That’s over half a human head per day. So any decrease in waste can help us get ahead of the pollution problem that are society is facing.

As they say, capitalism works when supply meets demand. There is clearly a demand for PPE, and it seems like manufacturers want to supply PPE. So why aren’t these connections occurring? As is the case with dating and business, many times a third party is needed to get people together who are meant to be together. The federal government can serve that role (for business not necessarily dating). But has the Trump Administration been taking the steps to facilitate or even broker those deals?

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