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Inside the Chaotic, Cutthroat Gray Market for N95 Masks

The New York Times – “As the country heads into a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, the government’s management of the P.P.E. crisis has left the private sector still straining to meet anticipated demand…The N95 respirator is emblematic of globalized capitalism: It is made out of fossil fuels, manufactured at enormous scale, often in developing nations by cheap labor, and distributed on the shipping lanes that bind together the far-flung corners of the world; it is used by urbanites to keep pollution expelled by their own factories from their lungs, construction workers raising clouds of concrete dust as they build ever-growing cities and doctors treating patients coughing from the diseases multiplying among increasingly urbanized populations. It is meant to be tossed after a single use. These lightweight scoops of breathable plastic — the shape of which was inspired by the cup of a 1950s molded bra — are simple to use. A person sets a respirator over the nose and mouth, and a tensioned headband seals it against the face. When someone inhales, air passes through tightly woven, electrostatically charged mesh, which snags the vast majority of microscopic airborne particulates — 95 percent, hence the name. The masks are made by melting huge quantities of specialized plastic pellets and then blowing the molten liquid through perforated metal to produce a tangle of filaments that cools and fuses into a dense mat of fibers: the all-important filter. An electrostatic charge is added to help capture microscopic particulates. Then the filter is sealed between two protective layers, and a headband is welded or stapled on. Tens of millions of masks can roll off a factory’s conveyor belts in a month…In late 2019 and the first two months of 2020, the Trump administration was inundated with red alerts about the incoming pandemic from internal entities like the National Security Council and external sources like the nation’s biggest medical-supply corporations. Some of those warnings — including memos addressed directly to the president — highlighted how America’s P.P.E. supply would be overwhelmed. As a whistle-blower report would later reveal, in January, Department of Health and Human Services officials effectively dismissed an offer from one of America’s few remaining N95 manufacturers, Prestige Ameritech, to expand its production lines. And when the head of an H.H.S. agency responsible for preparing the nation for pandemics tried to expand his budget to increase domestic respirator production, he was overruled by a senior H.H.S. official, Robert Kadlec. (H.H.S. says Kadlec was forced to make the decision because of appropriations rules.)..”

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