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Scarcity of key material squeezes medical mask manufacturing

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Rachel Spray is still grieving the loss of her fellow nurse who died after being exposed to the novel coronavirus at Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center in California. Now, as she stands in front of the gleaming glass and concrete hospital, she says she “dreads going in there” and fears she’ll be next.

That’s because like those in many U.S. hospitals, management is rationing supplies, she says, keeping medical-grade masks under lock and key.

White House officials say U.S. hospitals have all the medical supplies needed to battle the deadly virus, but front-line health care workers, hospital officials and even the Food and Drug Administration say shortages persist. Critical shortfalls of medical N95 respirators, commonly referred to as N95 masks, and other protective gear started in March, when the pandemic hit New York. Pressure on the medical supply chain continues today, and in “many ways things have only gotten worse,” the American Medical Association’s president, Dr. Susan Bailey, said in a recent statement.

“N95s are still in a shortage,” said Mike Schiller, the American Hospital Association’s senior director for supply chains. “It’s certainly not anywhere near pre-COVID levels.”

The Associated Press has found the administration took months to sign contracts with companies that make the crucial component inside these masks: meltblown textile. Meltblowing is the manufacturing process that turns plastic into the dense mesh that makes N95 masks effective at blocking vanishingly small particles, including viruses.

Even today, manufacturers say the Trump administration hasn’t made the long-term investments they need in order to ramp up to full capacity.

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